"The Reader" dares to construct an intergenerational love story from the horrors of the Holocaust.
Aging 30 years and speaking with a German accent were the least of Kate Winslet's challenges in playing a former Nazi camp guard accused of mass murder. In "The Reader," Winslet pulls off a character who has maybe, probably, behaved so monstrously that she deserves no sympathy, yet commands our attention in a way that suggests we should withhold judgment.
Based on an Oprah-endorsed bestselling novel, "The Reader" begins with a chance meeting between 15-year-old Michael and 35-year-old Hanna (Winslet). She seduces him with the gruffest come-hither approach since Stanley Kowalski.
Hanna is a trolley ticket-taker whose stunted emotions require her to choose a lover innocent and malleable enough to completely control. As foreplay, she insists on him reading aloud from classic literature. The nudity is frank, the sex more tender than titillating.
After Hanna abruptly disappears, Michael is shocked to see her several years later, when he is a law student sitting in on a war-crimes trial, with Hanna in the hot seat. Michael knows a secret that could cast doubt on her guilt, a secret that continues to haunt him and affect every subsequent relationship of his life.
If Winslet carries the complex psychological intrigue of the film on her shoulders, David Kross carries the heart of it on his. For an 18-year-old with little prior acting experience, Kross brings a fetching blend of naivete and realization to Michael.
Ralph Fiennes as the older Michael has plenty to brood about, not least of which is a largely thankless role for an actor of his stature. Despite his sophisticated skills, many of the cut-to-the-future scenes unnecessarily stretch out the film and interrupt the flow of the real action back in the 1950s bedroom and 1960s courtroom.
Director Stephen Daldry's first two films ("Billy Elliot," "The Hours") both received multiple Oscar nominations, and this one is attracting some lead-in awards attention, mostly for Winslet. But a best-picture nod this time may be threatened by a pace that now and then slows dangerously to a crawl. Despite that, "The Reader" is worth the effort for the performances, especially Winslet's unsettling Hanna.
It can't rely on the built-in heightened drama of this winter's two other Holocaust-related offerings -- the easy poignancy of children in concentration camps in "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," or the anti-Hitler heroics of "Valkyrie." This film furthers the genre by daring to be something else -- a love story in which the Holocaust plays only a supporting role.
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046