In 1958, 15 year-old Michael Berg (Kross) has an affair with an older woman, Hanna (Winslet). Later, as a law student, he attends a war-crimes trial — and finds Hanna accused of mass-murder. As an adult (Fiennes), Michael is troubled by aspects of Hanna’s case.
From the first shots — which show a very precise, very German breakfast laid out in 1995 by uptight lawyer Michael (Ralph Fiennes) for the nude bed-partner he is hurrying out of his spare apartment — The Reader is concerned with being serious, cautious and thoughtful. But there’s still a naked woman in the picture.
The bulk of the first-act flashback, detailing the young Michael’s (David Kross) affair with a tram conductress in the 1950s, is the sort of how-I-lost-my-virginity business French directors used to shrug off as a rite-of-passage without feeling the rest of their lives were blighted by the experience. Only after we’re past the stage of Kate Winslet lolling around without her train-conductor uniform while her schoolboy lover reads aloud to her does the weighty topic of the Holocaust impinge on the picture, as it turns out that Hanna is one of six middle-aged women indicted for war crimes after a Jewish survivor publishes a book about the work camp where she was a guard. But even that’s not the big story-hinge; Michael
twigs — unlike everyone else — that Hanna may be keeping other secrets, which she's apparently even more concerned people don’t find out about than her possible involvement in the deaths of 300 women.
Stephen Daldry’s third film as director seems as calculated as Billy Elliot and The Hours to figure in awards nominations — the performances are outstanding and the subject matter demands respect — but it’s a cold fish of a film, and slow enough to leave audiences time to ponder its gaping plot-holes once the central mystery is solved.
It gets over the hump of having British stars use slight German accents to play alongside German actors playing in English. Winslet especially brings a great deal to a challenging role (in the end, we can know Hanna no better than the hero, and never understand whether she’s a greater or lesser monster than her shrewish, treacherous co-defendants). But the contrivance inherent in playing this story in English for an international audience means it can’t feel as real or be as affecting as, say, The Lives Of Others or Downfall.
The epitome of middle-brow ‘quality’ drama — admirable within its limitations, but Bernard Schlink’s Oprah Winfrey Book Club-approved book wasn’t exactly literature, as this isn’t exactly cinema.