The Reader (R) **½
Youthful idealism falls apart in the end.
By Connie Ogle, The Miami Herald
The Reader may not arrive at a definitive answer to its central dilemma -- how does a generation absolve itself of the sins of its fathers? -- but the truth is that there is no satisfactory answer. At least The Reader is savvy enough to ask the question. But the film, based on the bestselling novel by Germany's Bernhard Schlink, relies too much on coincidence and, in an even more puzzling turn, seems to suggest that illiteracy might be a valid excuse for the worst of human behavior.
Set in Germany, the film travels back through the memory of lawyer Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes), who as a teenage boy in 1958 threw himself into a tempestuous affair with Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), a strange older woman. Young Michael (played by German actor David Kross, pretty enough to convince us he'll grow up to be Fiennes) is quickly and eagerly obsessed; Hanna is distant one moment, seductive the next, then suddenly infuriated for reasons the inexperienced Michael can't fathom. He's heartbroken when the inevitable occurs, and Hanna vanishes.
Fate, however, is not finished with Michael. Years later, a law school field trip lands him in a courtroom -- of all the trials in all the towns in all the world -- where he is shocked to see Hanna as the primary defendant in a war-crime trial.
The Reader is visually arresting, particularly during the early scenes of Michael and Hanna's affair, which glow with a golden light that mimics Michael's youthful idealism. They're the best part of the movie, full of tension and possibility. But as the film drifts back to the adult Michael, it grows more pedestrian, and the weight of Hanna's secret becomes more a clumsy plot device than a reason for her unthinkable behavior.
The performances are uniformly good, especially Kross, who bears the heavy (or is it fortunate?) burden of full-on frontal nudity in his sensual, explicit scenes with Winslet. But The Reader doesn't do enough to explore the guilt and betrayal the adult Michael feels over the acts of his elders. We've seen plenty of Holocaust movies, but The Reader is one of the few to deal with the subject of how the next generation of Germans makes sense of such carnage. If only it hadn't offered such a lightweight excuse for the darkness of the human soul.
Cast: Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross
Director: Stephen Daldry
Screenwriter: David Hare. Based on the novel by Bernhard Schlink.
Producers: Donna Gigliotti, Anthony Minghella, Redmond Morris, Sydney Pollack.
A Weinstein Co. release. Running time: 123 minutes. Some scenes of sexuality and nudity. Playing at area theaters.