The annual end-of-year outpouring of awards-baiting dramas comes in two distinct flavors this year: low-def, gritty, achingly sincere miserablist indies, and high-toned, expensive, achingly serious miserablist studio fare. The Bernhard Schlink novel adaptation The Reader falls firmly into the latter camp; everything about it is warmly lit and coldly calculated. Even the sex scenes are tastefully posed in ways that have more to do with an idealized portrait of passion than actual sex. Viewers should expect no less from Steven Daldry, who with the Best Director nominees The Hours and Billy Elliot, gave prestige-pic fans two other staid, swelling book adaptations suitable for framing.
But while The Reader could stand to be more lively and lived-in, it's nonetheless a supremely well-acted, gorgeously shot story that quietly dodges many of the common pitfalls of the Holocaust movie. In particular, it has little to do with the vastness of the tragedy, and everything to do with the disjunctions between generations in all eras, not just momentous ones.
David Kross stars as a callow 15-year-old who falls into a sudden love affair with snappish tram attendant Kate Winslet in 1958 Germany. He's naïve and unformed; even a normal relationship would be a mystery to him, let alone their trap-filled maze of sudden tensions and forced distances. Still, Winslet answers his infatuation with a growing warmth once he begins reading to her. The trysts end as abruptly as they begin; far later, when Kross encounters Winslet in a new setting and learns about her role in the war, he struggles with the conflict between love, revulsion, and perceived duty. Interspersed scenes set in 1995 Berlin, with Kross' character played by Ralph Fiennes, show how fully that struggle has shaped his adult life.
The Reader is a deeply novelistic movie, full of undercurrents and messages, particularly about the way young people have to distance themselves from the authority figures of their youth in order to create their own identities, even though by the time they make their breaks, it's already too late to clear off all the imprinting those authority figures left on them. But Kross and Winslet's intense performances and Daldry's deliberately placid control of tone make the material work as a love (and hate) story as well as a metaphor. Passion can't be meticulously, thoughtfully crafted, but everything that can be is beautifully done here.