Hare takes on the critics

Posted by · 8:14 am · January 19th, 2009

You’d think an artist as established as Sir David Hare might, in the course of his long career, have learned to take a bit of criticism in his stride. However, amid a rather odd flare-up between the venerable British playwright/screenwriter and Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw, Hare comes off looking decidedly thin-skinned.

The source of conflict is Bradshaw’s savage (though I think rather astute) review of the Hare-penned “The Reader.” Despite his admiration for the craftmanship on display and the performance of Kate Winslet, Bradshaw disliked the film intensely, objecting that it exploited the Holocaust to lend gravitas to “a middlebrow sentimental-erotic fantasy.” It’s a complex (and spoiler-ridden) piece that can’t easily be summarised, but Bradshaw’s closing paragraph offers the nub of his argument:

I can’t forgive this film for being so shallow and so obtuse on such a subject, and I can’t accept it as a parable for war-guilt-by-association suffered by goodish Germans of the next generation. Under the gloss of high production value, under the sheen of hardback good taste, there is something naive and glib and meretricious. It left a very strange taste in my mouth.

Bradshaw isn’t alone; you may remember that the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis had some similar qualms about the film’s take on Holocaust, accusing it of “embalm(ing) its horrors with artfully spilled tears.”

However, in an onstage interview last week at the BFI Southbank, Hare lashed out at such critics with some vigour. Rather defensively, he describes the film as being “especially original for being about those who were born in the shadow of the crime,” while in the following statement, he takes on Bradshaw directly (spectacularly missing the point of his argument, I think):

Now it turns out that a few broadsheet film critics in Britain do indeed belong to a category of people who would have resisted Hitler when he came to power. So the great shame is, clearly film critics should have been running Austria at the time, because Hitler would have represented no problem to them at all. Peter Bradshaw would have known exactly what to do, and he would not have been remotely fallible to any Nazi who threatened his life. No, he would have died in heroic acts of individual resistance. So it’s a privilege to live among people who enjoy such moral certainty.

Not to be outdone, Bradshaw has hit back with a lengthy rebuttal, chiding Hare for what he perceives as a glibly sarcastic response, and reiterating that, “In taking on the Holocaust, (“The Reader”) bites off more than it has any intention of chewing.” It’s worth a read, whatever side of the fence you’re on — in this very dull season, it’s nice to have a film capable of stirring debate, whatever its merits.

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9 responses so far

  • 1 1-19-2009 at 8:57 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    I remember feeling disgusted when reading the original German novel some years ago. I can’t imagine feeling any different about it now, despite how good certain elements in the film might be.

  • 2 1-19-2009 at 9:33 am

    Patrick W. said...

    I think Bradshaw should assess what the film’s message really is.

    The story is Michael’s. He falls in love with her, and we see this, and to some extent feel it too, as it is depicted onscreen.

    He then later finds out that the woman he fell so deeply in love with had committed unforgivable crimes. The film is attempting a portrayal of someone desperately trying to excuse the love of their life something inexcusable. It is painful and tragic, and I think it is moving and exquisite in this respect.

    I don’t think the message is to trivialise or romanticise war crimes, but rather to show the hopelessness of Michael in that he can never escape Hana’s crimes, however much he might want to. The notion of Hana’s literacy as some sort of excuse for her crimes is not the point I don’t think, rather it is included by Daldry to show how much Michael wants to excuse her, and will mull over her illiteracy in an attempt to do so, but ultimately he cannot.

    Hana committed awful crimes. Winslet portrays her beautifully as a woman unable to cope with the enormity of her past.

    The film is worthwhile and it does not make use/light of the atrocities committed during WW2.

    Any sympathy we feel for Hana is because Michael feels that way, and we have to understand his sympathy for the woman, even in light of her crimes, to understand his pain. Which is ultimately one of the main points of the film.

  • 3 1-19-2009 at 11:08 am

    Silencio said...

    I agree with Patrick.
    I also believe Hare had a right to contest such a bold and damaging accusation. This was no light offense Hare was being accused of. As an artist, that is an inexcusable act, and if it is not accurate (and I don’t believe it is), then he can and should respond.
    I do think he could have responded better though.

  • 4 1-19-2009 at 11:23 am

    Chase Kahn said...

    Funny, I felt the same way after I saw ‘Defiance’, except that doesn’t have any A-plus production or talent to hide behind.

  • 5 1-19-2009 at 12:07 pm

    Chris said...

    “He explains Hanna’s illiteracy to Ilana and the woman asks sharply: “Is that an explanation? Or an excuse?” This highly pertinent question never gets a satisfactory answer from Michael or anyone else. Ilana does not take the money, but incredibly, she does accept the battered old tea-can because it resembles one she lost in the camps – thus legitimising this appalling payment in a far deeper, more emotional sense. The sheer fatuity of this exchange left me gasping.”

    If Bradshaw needs a message so blatantly obvious as the one to be taken from this scene to be spelled out to him, then obviously he doesn’t know much about the art of literature or film. What Bradshaw does is confounding character and author – what Michael sees, thinks, and believes are only channels through which we, the spectators should form our own judgment. Michael is not Bernhard Schlink, or David Hare. He is a character, struggling with his past, something Hannah only learns to do when she learns to read. Michael struggles because he cannot excuse the deeds of the person with whom he shared his first passionate moments – that’s not excusing or downsizing the crimes of the Holocaust, it’s actually acknowledging them and showing the incapacity of anyone actively involved or remotely attached to it, to live in the consciousness of the horror thus produced.

  • 6 1-19-2009 at 3:22 pm

    Sam said...

    I also agree with Patrick.
    And I loved the film.
    And I’m Jewish…if that matters.
    And I am glad David Hare…who is far more intelligent and prolific then any critic I’ve ever read, spoke up for the film.

  • 7 1-20-2009 at 1:11 am

    Scott Ward said...

    I won’t say that Hare won the argument as much as Bradshaw, in my opinion, never had a legitimate one. If he wants to look at a film that way, fine, but that’s not the intent or the meaning of the picture.

    I don’t think that Bradshaw realizes that a film’s setting is not always what the film is about. A film that takes place in the middle of a war can ultimately not be a war film (Apocalypse Now).

    I certainly can’t prove this, but I theorize that Bradshaw sees it as an erotic fantasy because he merely sees it as unrealistic. Otherwise, the movie is certainly not perfect, but I certainly don’t see where it is that bad.

  • 8 1-20-2009 at 7:50 am

    actionman said...

    I loved both The Reader and Defiance.