Posted by Eric Shapiro "The Reader," directed by Stephen Daldry, has all the trappings of an Oscar movie. But strip away its glossy exterior and "The Reader's" warts become all too visible.
On his way home from school in Germany in 1958, 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross) is stricken ill with scarlet fever. As fate would have it, he is spotted in the midst of vomiting by Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), an icy former S.S. officer turned train conductor, who subsequently helps him get home.
After his recovery, Berg returns to the woman's apartment to thank her and, lo and behold, the two fall into a love affair that begins in the bedroom and soon spills out into the countryside as the couple embarks on a long bicycle ride. At Hanna's insistence, the boy reads to her from classic works of literature, a bizarre kind of intellectual pillow talk that foreshadows a disturbing revelation later on.
Their happiness is cut short when Hanna, an illiterate, is promoted to a clerical job, prompting her to flee in shame. At this point the plot begins to buckle under the weight of its ambition. Like many other adaptations, "The Reader" suffers from an identity crisis. One minute it is a romance, the next a courtroom thriller and finally a family drama.
Unfortunately, the transitions from genre to genre are jarring; as a result, "The Reader" often feels like three movies in one. Despite some heavy-handed rhetoric, the film rarely achieves the profundity that it strives for. Many intriguing points are lost in the shuffle as the plot stumbles forward.
"The Reader" equally lacks a human level, with the protagonists never progressing beyond caricatures. Newcomer David Kross is called upon to tug at the audience's heartstrings with a doe-eyed, wounded look; it is a pity he is not given more of a chance to prove his acting chops before Ralph Fiennes swoops in to play the dull, older version of the protagonist.
Kate Winslet turns in a respectable performance as Hanna Schmitz, managing to convey psychological depth with little help from the script. Through no fault of her own, she loses the audience' sympathy after being called upon to explain her reprehensible actions as a member of the S.S. Daldry's vain attempts to provoke sympathy for the character in the wake of her confession are almost offensive. Unfortunately, they constitute a third of the film.
In a way, "The Reader" epitomizes Hollywood pretension. The cinematography is stunning, the actors are blandly impressive and the booming orchestral score kicks in at precisely the right moments, but it lacks the intelligence and soul of a truly great movie.
"The Reader" may not be the worst or shallowest movie of the year, but it is the worst movie that tries to pass itself off as more than shallow entertainment.