Movie Review: Ann Hornaday on "The Reader"

After each liasion, Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) asks teenage lover Michael Berg (David Kross) to read to her.
After each liasion, Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) asks teenage lover Michael Berg (David Kross) to read to her. (By Melinda Sue Gordon -- The Weinstein Co.)
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By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 25, 2008

"The Reader," a post-World War II drama starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes, exemplifies the kind of prestige production -- based on a highly regarded novel, brought to the screen by filmmakers of unerring good taste, drenched in historical import and moral heft -- that seems scientifically engineered for maximum accolade accumulation. What, more awards? Just put 'em over there, boys. Next!

Well, surprise. "The Reader" proves that even the most impeccable award-worthies can be good movies. This engrossing, graceful adaptation of Bernhard Schlink's semi-autobiographical novel has been adapted by screenwriter David Hare and director Stephen Daldry with equal parts simplicity and nuance, restraint and emotion. At the center of a skein of vexing ethical questions, Winslet delivers a tough, bravura performance as a woman whose past coincides with Germany's most cataclysmic and hauntingly unresolved era.

"The Reader" takes place in several eras, but its story begins in 1958, when 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross) meets a 36-year-old tram worker named Hanna Schmitz. The boy develops an almost immediate sexual curiosity about a woman who calls him "kid" and treats him with a gruff, unsentimental approximation of affection. Soon the two have embarked on an affair that, for Michael, represents a sweet, sensuous introduction to sexual life. For Hanna, clearly, the relationship is fraught with deeper and more unsettling issues, hinted at but never fully explained by how she orders Michael to read to her during every liaison and how, finally, she one day disappears.

Devastated, Michael goes on to put his life together, first as a law student and then as a successful attorney in Berlin (Michael is played as an adult by Fiennes). Daldry, best known for skillfully adapting the similarly technically challenging novel "The Hours," smoothly moves from Germany in the 1950s and 1960s to the 1980s and 1990s and back, as Michael learns the literally unspeakable truth of Hanna's life, and begins to understand the implications of their affair.

As the wrenching mystery of "The Reader" comes to light, the filmmakers gratifyingly avoid histrionics or rank melodrama. It's as if they've taken to heart one of the common-sense pronouncements of Michael's law professors, played by the wonderful Bruno Ganz, who at one point suggests that what people feel or think isn't nearly as important as what they do.

Actions, reactions and their consequences drive the quietly riveting narrative of "The Reader," which never quite goes where viewers may expect it to. Even though Hanna keeps the story's most explosive secret -- that she served in the SS at Auschwitz during the war -- the most disquieting questions in "The Reader" are faced by Michael. As a member of Germany's "second generation" that came of age immediately after the war, he represents the difficulties of coping with the truths behind the shame of his country's past. (Lena Olin delivers a shattering performance in a dual role that forms the unshakable moral center of a story devoted to ambiguity.)

That collective sense of guilt is played out more intimately in the shame that surrounds Michael's early relationship with Hanna, an affair he must continually reframe as facts come to light that suggest that what for him was a sentimental education was freighted with far more malign abuses of power.

The great strength of "The Reader" is that it never stacks the deck for or against its darkly troubled protagonists, who are allowed their reasons even as they stand thoroughly accountable for their behavior. If prestige pictures too often run afoul of their own refined taste, "The Reader" proves that sometimes good taste is precisely what's called for. It's a lucid, absorbing and finally deeply moving account of a man coming to terms with both history and his story.

The Reader (123 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for scenes of sexuality and nudity.

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