"Its execution is a travesty -- cold and unfeeling."
The Reader is a dull slog of a movie gussied up by two Oscar-nominated actors -- Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes. If not for them, as well as an impressive performance by virtual newcomer David Kross, there would be nothing positive to say about it at all.
Editor's Note: Spoilers Ahead
The story starts in Berlin, 1958, when young Michael Berg (Kross, playing 15 years old in these scenes) is seduced by a much older streetcar-conductor named Hanna (Winslet). He's quickly reduced to a lovesick slave, trading readings of great books for rolls in the sack. The two actors spend the first third of the movie mostly naked. Not just kind of naked. Naked naked.
Anyway, after an exciting couple of months, Michael finds her apartment empty. Not even a note has been left. Years later and now in law school, Michael is still waiting for the wounds from his affair with Hanna to turn into bearable scars when his class is invited to observe a war-crimes trial. Several female concentration camp guards have been accused of murder after the publication of a survivor's memoir, and one of them turns out to be Hanna. This is what made Bernhard Schlink's bestseller, from which The Reader is adapted, so powerful; his book is a stirring meditation on Germany's post-war conscience as generations find some way to live with and grow out of the Nazi atrocities. Michael, a member of the first generation to become teenagers and then adults after the war, must contend with the complex emotions that come with not only rediscovering his first love, but also discovering that his first love was responsible for hundreds, maybe even thousands of deaths.
Hanna is an intriguing character, since she reveals nothing of who she really is and yet, thanks to Winslet, fully exists onscreen. She is a force that destroys lives, while trying to find some semblance of happiness for herself. Does she feel guilt over what she did in those camps? Did she understand what she was doing when she showed her prisoners to the gas chambers? Did she ever love Michael, or was his just another existence to decimate?
Now, you're probably wondering at this point: what the hell is so bad about this movie? This critic guy seems to think it has a lot going for it, right? Well, that's true. The Reader does have a lot going for it, intellectually that is (the book got it right; the movie doesn't). Its execution, however, is a travesty -- cold and unfeeling -- the self-important direction by Stephen Daldry (The Hours) assumes profundity because of the subject matter, but never offers up a hint of humanity outside of brief moments in Kross's performance of university-aged Michael and a painful exchange between Fiennes's Michael and the author of the memoir that helped to condemn Hanna. It's intellectual snobbery, without any soul.