In Stephen Daldry's The Reader, based on a best selling novel published in 1995, love and all the emotional warfare attached to it is explored. Young love is bliss, associated at times with infatuation, but can of course lead to almost unbearable heartache. Through it all however, love can and does propel people to do the right thing. In the case of Michael Berg, played by Ralph Fiennes and his younger self portrayed by David Kross, it means finding the compassion and emotional will power to come to the aid of Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), with whom he had a love affair in his youth but, through some extraordinary circumstances, discovered atrocious truths regarding her past.
As a young lad in his teens, Michael felt terribly ill on his way home from school one day. Crouched against the wall in the entrance to an apartment building on a rainy afternoon in Berlin, he is noticed by a Hanna who invites him to her place to gather his strength. Months later, Michael returns to her place once his illness has passed to thank her, and so begins a lustful affair between this teenage boy and a fully grown woman. It begins fleetingly, with Michael only seeing brief glimpses of her desirable body (this is Kate Winslet we're talking about after all) through curtains. She is tempted by his youthfulness and seduces him. Their affair is one filled with great passion, although Michael is often the one to express it more clearly. He leaves class in the afternoon, making his way to Hanna's bedroom giddy like a school boy since he is but a giddy school boy after all. He is especially happy and proud with what he has found in this woman. It's almost a privilege for him. David Kross as the young Michael is a revelation here, at least to this viewer who had never heard of him prior to seeing The Reader. In what must have been a very complex role to fill, Kross delivers in spades. There is a certain childlike quality about him that hints the immaturity that still lies within, yet he has to show at least reasonable signs of early adulthood, otherwise the audience may be completely turned off. Thankfully, the scenes of the two lying in bed with Michael reading poetry or classic stories to Hanna (she is illiterate) or cycling off in the countryside are are well executed and not only bring their relationship to life on the screen, but make it believable and deserving of the audience's attention. It is awkward and sweet all at once, making for an emotionally complex story. Needless to say, Kate Winslet is exquisite as Hanna, playing a woman who not only has an infatuation with a teenage boy (problem number one) but also has an aloofness to her. She's is capable is putting the passion on hold whenever she deems it necessary. While she does show kindness to Michael, we soon discover that there is something suspiciously cold about her. A great performance overall.
I would go so far as to say that Winslet and Kross are so good in the film, Ralph Fiennes, one of my personal favorite actors, is almost an afterthought. There is no question that he plays a thoughtful, remorseful adult version of Michael well, but he is clearly upstaged by his two co-stars. Fiennes comes into the story mostly in the final act, when he arrives at the decision to send Hanna, who is in prison for war crimes, tape recorded readings of her favorite stories. It is with these recordings and with the books from the prison library that she teaches herself to read and write. While somewhat touching, the latter part of the film doesn't quite reach the same heights that the first third reached. It's good, but that awkward passion that made the early stages better is long good.
Which leaves the middle third of the story, during which director Daldry decides to show us the trial of Hanna and other former Nazi guards, who are accused of letting a building full of Jewish prisoners burn down during WWII. Several years removed from his relationship with Hanna, Michael is now a law student and, as misfortune would have it, it just so happens that his professor has taken the class to witness that very trial. It is here where the film bogs down a bit. Philosophical and intellectual questions are tossed around regarding the morality of the trial itself and the actions of the former guards currently standing on trial. There is nothing wrong with having a film ponder on these matters. This particular viewer would normally applaud a film that attempts to wrestle with such matters. However, in this film it all feels a bit misplaced. Suddenly the tone of the story has changed. Instead of a challenging love story, what we have for perhaps 30 minutes or so is a court drama. As a sequence itself I didn't have much of a problem with it, but I felt it deserved its own film. It didn't need to eat up 30-40 minutes of this one. This portion of the film also features Bruno Ganz (from Downfall fame, at least from my perspective) criminally reduced to the role of the professor who keeps answering his students questions with questions of his own. In fact, I can't remember a single line of his that wasn't a question!
Despite the film's weaknesses, The Reader is more than just serviceable. It features two commendable performances that rise to the occasion and challenges the viewer with a love story that should feel terribly odd and does to a certain extent, but that one can't help but want to see unfold and possibly even continue, or reignite at least. I would still recommend it, although with a small caution regarding the film's inability to sustain the magic that lifts the first third.