Completely riveting, yet about as emotionally distant as the chilly former concentration camp guard portrayed in the film by Kate Winslet, director Stephen Daldry's Oscar-bait follow up to his 2002 award winner, The Hours, stays coolly detached despite featuring some pretty steamy sex scenes and dealing with a highly confrontational subject matter. Still, emotional impact is admittedly not the be-all and end-all of a great film, and those in search of an absorbing, intellectually stimulating study of German Holocaust guilt will certainly have something to talk about after the credits roll.
The story opens in post-World War II Germany, where young student Michael Berg (David Kross) has fallen ill with scarlet fever while walking home from school. Gently guided home by a compassionate older woman named Hanna (Winslet), Michael convalesces for a few months before returning to Hanna's apartment with a bouquet of flowers. Before long, the two have become lovers: Hanna instructing Michael in the methods of pleasing a woman, and Michael reciprocating by reading her the classical texts he's been assigned in school. Later, when the relationship grows contentious and Hanna vanishes without a trace, Michael moves on to study law, eventually attending a class field trip to a German court where a group of female former concentration camp guards are being tried for war crimes. The defendant bearing most of the brunt in the trial is Hanna. She stands accused by her fellow guards of being the leader who ordered that a group of Jewish prisoners be contained in a church that was bombed into oblivion, killing everyone unfortunate enough to be locked inside at the time. Upon realizing that the very same woman whom he slept with as a teenager was complicit in the murder of hundreds of innocent Jews, Michael discovers that Hanna has accepted the charges against her in order to prevent an embarrassing truth about herself from being revealed to the court.
The Reader begins as one type of film and ends as something else entirely -- effectively blindsiding the viewer as it takes a sharp turn from erotic tale of sexual awakening to austere meditation on cultural culpability. Fortunately for the viewer, both aspects of the film are expertly scripted and beautifully acted, ensuring our undivided attention even when we aren't entirely certain where the story is headed. Those willing to play along are rewarded with a film that is consistently watchable thanks in large part to strong leading performances. German newcomer Kross is a natural, while his seasoned co-star Winslet conveys her character's complexity with graceful candor. However, the film is strangely unaffecting due to a marked lack of focus in storytelling. Each plotline has the makings of an interesting, involving movie, though in the end (and admittedly not being familiar with the book) it feels as if the screenwriter, David Hare, couldn't decide which aspect of Bernhard Schlink's novel he liked most, and chose to simply split the story down the middle. Whether the source material or Hare's tinkering is to blame for the fact that the story keeps the viewer at arm's length, the end result is still the same: a film that's technically superb, yet still falls short of true greatness.