It’s hard to believe that a movie whose first half is all about passionate, semi-taboo sex featuring a frequently nude Kate Winslet, and whose second half is all about bitter recriminations during and following Nazi war-crimes trials could be so dull, stately and emotionally removed, but that’s exactly what Stephen Daldry accomplishes with The Reader, a tedious piece of awards bait that drains the color from both illicit sex and historical tragedy.
The movie starts with Ralph Fiennes as dead-eyed German lawyer Michael Berg, but quickly flashes back to Michael’s 1950s youth. Fifteen-year-old Michael (David Kross) is walking home from school one day, feeling ill and soaked from the rain, when he’s helped out by streetcar attendant Hanna Schmitz (Winslet). Returning months later (after a bout of scarlet fever) to thank her, Michael quickly ends up in bed with the much older woman, and proceeds to experience a sexual coming of age under her tutelage. He also starts reading to her from novels, plays and even comic books, an activity she relishes as a prelude to their lovemaking.
The couple’s romance is depicted explicitly but at a distance, and it never quite connects to Michael’s home life or especially to his later years. Fiennes and Kross appear to be playing completely different characters, and so the movie’s message about the way that such a formative adolescent experience can profoundly effect the entirety of one’s life is muddled or lost altogether.
Eventually Michael and Hanna’s affair comes to an end when she has to flee suddenly, worried, as we learn later, about the police discovering her past as a concentration-camp guard. Several years later, Michael (still played by Kross) is a law student and witnessing Nazi war-crimes trials as part of an advanced seminar. There he discovers the truth about Hanna, who is accused of allowing a group of 300 women to burn to death in a church rather than risk letting them escape.
Despite the careful recounting of these tragic events, the trial scenes do little to rouse any sort of emotion, whether it’s pity for the victims or disgust at the actions of Hanna and her fellow guards—or even pity for Hanna herself, who was clearly in over her head and not fully cognizant of the consequences of her decisions. Michael carries a secret about Hanna from his days as her lover, one that could partially exonerate her, but even his anguish over whether to speak up feels like a law-school exercise rather than an intensely personal crisis.
The movie drags further as Winslet dons dodgy old-age makeup to play Hanna through her later years in prison, and Michael turns from Kross to Fiennes, becoming an embittered middle-aged man. The film’s coda attempts to offer some sort of closure and redemption for the two main characters but never transcends its school-lesson feel. Nazis were people, too; everyone makes choices they regret; the things we do in our youth can haunt us throughout our lives. These are all valuable truths, but the movie strains to transform them from abstract ideas to full-bodied drama.
It’s best in the early stages, as a story of a young man’s maturation and an older women’s sexual and emotional reawakening. Winslet excels at playing brittle, inhibited women, and she convincingly sells Hanna’s joy and apprehension at her hidden passions bubbling to the surface. Any potential that arises there gets dulled into irrelevance over the course of the next hour, though, resulting in a movie that says all the right things but never has the vitality to make them convincing.