Stephen Daldry's adaptation of Bernhard Schlink's novel set in Post War Germany is a haunting love story, a great rumination on loss and guilt, and a less then satisfying court room drama. It is well acted in, and as the Oscars will testify, it is a once in a lifetime performance from Kate Winslet.
The Reader is a delicate film, concerning itself with the nature of moral and legal guilt, and how complicit guilt strikes at the conscience of a people awakening after a war that took its toll on many levels. This is not your summer action blockbuster - surprising considering its release window - and those in look for standard timepass fare should stay away.
Daldry teaming up with his The Hours collaborator David Hare has tried to channel the novel's more personal touches into celluloid. Profoundly understanding the undercurrent of the story, they have made a deeply personal film that asks difficult and uncomfortable questions of your conscience. The questions take the form of a 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross) who one summer has an affair in postwar Berlin with an older woman, tram conductor Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet). Post coitus, he reads literature to her, and their strange but delicate relationship goes on. After some time she disappears, and he grows up thinking of those times.
After eight years, Michael is now a law student, and he locates Hanna again, now on trial for war crimes for her role as an erstwhile Nazi prison guard. Ralph Fiennes plays the older Michael, a man given to quiet isolation and contemplation, who now reads books on tape and sends them to Hanna in jail. Constantly grappling with his morality, he tries to cope with what he thinks was his complicity and a love he has not forgotten.
The film struggles to find a balance with all the issues it uncovers by way of narrative. The courtroom drama is especially ineffectual, and feels colder than it should have been. Kate Winslet, however, rises above any failings this delicate film may have, and gives a performance that haunts you long after you have left the screening.
Making no mistakes, her fierce, lonely performance has the power to keep people up at nights. Her moments of brilliance and shining glory are all covered in a gloom that permeates her presence, something that seems not to take away from her radiance. This is her film through and through, and she carries it on her shoulders like no other.
The rest of the cast is strong, too, but no one is as unerring as her. Daldry's shot selection is like Winslet too - sparse, yet spot on. Together, both of them - masters of their craft - have constructed a performance that shines like a beacon, and a film that makes a few missteps here and there, but can be universally enjoyed.
You may wish it was a better, more perfect film, but as it is, it is immensely thought-provoking and fragilely beautiful. If you can let a great performance elevate a decent film, this one is for you. If you think context comes first, it still is a quietly powerful movie that has its failings, but is still effective in making you think.