Opening in limited release this week with a wider release planned for January, The Reader has "prestigious arthouse drama" written all over it. It's an adaptation of a critically acclaimed German novel by Bernhard Schlink, but translated into English for wider appeal, and features a big dramatic performance from Kate Winslet in which we see her character over the span of decades. It's directed by Stephen Daldry and adapted by David Hare, who collaborated on another prestigious adaptation together, The Hours in 2002. This time, their movie explores German relationships that are affected, even decades later, by the Holocaust.
The movie is told as a flashback from the point of view of a middle-aged lawyer in Berlin, Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes). Back in the late 1950s, 15-year-old Michael (David Kross) falls ill on the way home from school one day, and is comforted and helped by a strange woman (Winslet). When he recuperates and returns to her home to thank her, a sexual spark flares up between them into an inappropriate but sympathetic relationship. They meet every afternoon, not just for sex but for reading -- he starts by reading her the books assigned to him for school, but ends up finding all manner of literature for them to share. However, Hanna is full of secrets -- she is even reluctant to tell Michael her name -- and the effects of her past and her secret-keeping are long-reaching and dramatic.
The structure of The Reader is rambling and hard to follow -- you think the movie is drawing to a close, and then you get 15 minutes more, making me feel impatient near the end of the two-hour film, as though there were too many endings. (I had the same problem with Changeling.) The frequent shifts in time -- Michael in the present time of the film (1995), an extended chunk of the film during his teen years, another long flashback as a young man, and then shorter sequences that skip three years here and five there. The narrative arc isn't quite clear enough for the movie to shift in this way without a slight sense of disorientation. It may be that the decision to keep the novel's narrative structure impacted the film -- I haven't read it, but descriptions seem to indicate that the movie is fairly faithful to the events in the book.
Like many end-of-year films, the performances are what makes the film most worth watching. Kate Winslet makes Hanna in the first flashback sequence impenetrable and hard-boiled and a bit fierce, but not without passion and sorrow and even flashes of happiness. In the second sequence, she's able to give Hanna's face a wonderful mask-like quality, older and even more opaque. Winslet is better when her character is younger, but at least she's believable as an older woman. I'm not especially fond of watching younger actors and actresses play much older characters -- I often feel like there's a giant sign over their heads proclaiming, "Look at my range! Give me an Oscar!" (And yes, she's nude in the sex scenes, and if you're fond of watching Winslet in the buff you won't be disappointed.)
David Kross hits all the right notes as the young Michael, both as a 15-year-old being sexually initiated by Hanna, and later as a law student who is faced with raw emotion and difficult choices when he encounters Hanna again. His law-school professor turns out to be Bruno Ganz, which is a pleasant surprise. He also resembles Ralph Fiennes fairly accurately, except that Kross has this delightful and rare radiant smile that you can't imagine coming from Fiennes' character ... which is kind of the point of the movie, so that's fine. Fiennes gets little to do besides pondering and flashing back -- his one big scene at the end of the film, in New York, seems to fall flat and didn't quite have the intended impact.
The Reader offers little in the way of surprise and innovation, but does challenge the audience to think a little differently about the Holocaust and everyone involved in it. Even so, it is a small challenge, the kind you ponder on the drive home from the theater, and then forget about in a day or two. This is more of a coming-of-age film than an historical drama. The performances from Winslet and Kross, however, are strong and powerful and fascinating, and add vitality and interest to a fairly by-the-book adaptation.