One of the film’s strengths is its masterful handling of the preparation, exploitation and resolution of dramatic irony. It is this handling that so strongly emphasizes the difference between ‘telling’ and ‘showing’ in narrative development.
In the case below, the audience and the sympathetically sullen security guard know what’s befallen Hannah, but, alas, Michael does not.
After the setup, Daldry skips the initial revelation: that of the guard telling Michael what’s happened. We cut away a heart beat before the news is broken. All we see is the guard’s expression but we know her mind instantly. It is a prime example of non-verbal communication.
Furthermore, it is a more sophisticated handling of the release because it avoids a potentially course and affected delivery of the inevitable explanation.
More importantly, however, it avoids unnecessary redundancy. The audience at this point is used to the understated style and knows how to read this situation without being told. There’s a subtly in the editing of the story that seems so obvious as to negate not only it’s own subtlety but also any other means of its unfolding.
Alternatively, we have numerous clues to Hannah’s motivation along the way that illustrate the reversal of this situation, the opposite of dramatic irony: Hannah is the owner of knowledge to which the audience is not privy.
For example, there is no given explanation until later in the film why after receiving a promotion, Hannah is upset.
Her story makes use of the same philosophy of brevity exemplified in the previous example with Michael. Like the security guard’s answer, Hannah’s motivation is withheld for dramatic effect – a dramatic effect that more closely matches the silence of and gaps in real life. Indeed the film hangs by the thread of this hidden motivation and becomes a masterful exploration of it in the process.
Overall, the strength of this film lies in its ability to deliver and withhold relevant information at the right time. It uses primarily both dramatic irony and flashbacks to accomplish this.
The unfolding of a narrative is such a delicate balancing act. The Reader is an example of when it’s done correctly – and when it happens correctly, you get some really great story telling.