The Reader, adapted from Bernhard Schlink's international bestseller by director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter David Hare (the team behind the powerful adaptation of The Hours), arrives with all the obvious trappings of a year-end "prestige" picture. But since more time is spent exposing the milky white breasts of Kate Winslet than exposing the horrors of the Holocaust, viewers might be forgiven for thinking they stumbled into a big-budget remake of Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS. Two movies about nasty Nazi frauleins dividing their time between riding shotgun over prisoners and having sex with supple lads? What are the odds?
Winslet's Hannah Schmitz (no relation to Hannah Montana, just for the record) is a streetcar conductor in post-WWII Germany who enters into a passionate affair with 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross). Just as Susan Sarandon's Bull Durham character enjoyed the reading of poetry as a form of sexual foreplay, Hannah likes the literary word both before and after intercourse, urging Michael to read to her from the classics (amusingly, she professes disgust at Lady Chatterley's Lover but tells him to continue reading it anyway). In the blink of an eye, she drops out of his life, and it isn't until a few years later, as he's attending college as a law student, that she reappears -- as a former Nazi guard on trial for the atrocities she allegedly committed during the war.
The Reader is a thorny story, and its failing isn't because it elects to answer key questions about its characters in shocking fashion -- after all, many great movies are about less-than-admirable figures -- but because it waves off these revelations with all the impatience of a restaurant patron shooing away an overzealous waiter attempting to remove the soup bowl before it's drained.
At first glance, the movie's shifts through time periods (Ralph Fiennes is suitably moody as the older, troubled Michael) allow the tale to keep us on our toes, but they eventually reveal themselves to be gimmicky to the point of distraction. The picture does head toward a major secret, but I wasn't sure if the answer to this mystery was supposed to provide insight or shift our sympathies or what exactly. All it eventually does is reveal that, despite Winslet's strong performance, Hannah isn't really worthy of our attention -- and maybe not even this movie.