This is the film that finally gave Kate Winslet her best actress Oscar after five nominations but for my money the Academy got it wrong this year. They should have given her the award for Revolutionary Road, not The Reader. In Revolutionary Road she is a revelation, handing in a brave performance that crackles with suburban desperation. In The Reader she’s good, but not best actress good. In fact, the entire movie struck me as a deeply average piece of work from very talented people.
Based on an award-winning novel by German law professor and judge Bernhard Schlink The Reader is the story of two very different people. Teenager Michael Berg (German actor David Kross) is a good student who dreams of becoming a lawyer. Hanna (Kate Winslet) is twenty years older, working class and exotic in her earthiness. After a chance meeting they begin a sexual affair, meeting at her apartment after his school lets out. The set-up never varies. He reads to her and then they make love. In time, though, after his sexual awakening he tires of their trysts and leaves her.
Years later the law student Michael learns that after their fling Hannah became a Nazi prison guard and is now being tried for war crimes. During the trial he has an epiphany, realizing that he knows a secret about his former flame that could alter the outcome of the trail, but his shame regarding their affair forces him to remain silent.
The adult Michael (now played by the stone-faced Ralph Fiennes) is tormented by the decision he made back in law school and punishes himself for his silence all those years ago. It’s a moral quandary. He doesn’t condone her actions, but he feels as though he could have helped her and didn’t.
The Reader feels very Masterpiece Theatre, if Masterpiece Theatre featured more nudity. It’s a well constructed, well acted film with authentic looking period details and a thought provoking premise on the legacy of guilt in postwar Germany, but it feels so mannered, so restrained it left me cold. Even Winslet’s naked performance—both physically and emotionally—is too sombre. The whole movie feels removed from its subject matter as though the filmmakers were watching the story unfold instead of really trying to get under its skin and bring it to vivid life.