Bernhard Schlink’s novel “The Reader” was a No. 1 bestseller and a much-admired literary event. But in the movie version, it takes a great actress to animate some strangely lifeless surroundings.
That actress is Kate Winslet — and this isn’t even her best performance. But she’s the worthiest thing about “The Reader,” a year-end prestige picture. Alas, the movie has more prestige than guts.
Part of the story takes place in Germany in 1957, where a teenager named Michael (David Kross) begins an affair after an accidental meeting with a 40ish woman, Hanna (Winslet).
Their sexual intensity is interrupted only by his habit of reading books aloud to her. The average audience member will figure out long before Michael does (it takes him years) that this is more than just an endearing little post-coital game.
We know that Michael will grow up to become a commitment-phobic lawyer, played by Ralph Fiennes. Between these poles is a sequence that reveals to the younger Michael (a few years after the affair) the shadow of Nazi war crimes and how it might fall across Hanna.
Director Stephen Daldry (“The Hours”) takes a dead-serious approach to the material, which is the only way into it, unless you’re Mel Brooks. A series of moral questions — some at the feet of Hanna, some on Michael — form the film’s backbone.
These are somewhat puzzlingly developed. For instance, you might assume that Hanna’s wartime experiences would hold a bigger place in the drama than the issue of reading. Yet the emotional weight of the story actually tilts in the direction of the title.
The issues are interesting, but the dry approach of Daldry and adapter David Hare puts the film too frequently into the stiffer realms of the arthouse. It comes to life only during the affair, and the tender evocation of 1957 Germany.
Those scenes burn with Kate Winslet’s particular gravity and intelligence. Everything else in the movie seems bleached compared to the hothouse atmosphere within her modest apartment, or the couple’s occasional forays into the world (including a day in the country where Hanna is mistaken for Michael’s mother).
In the end, the exceedingly literary approach, the respectable tastefulness of the ideas here, the impeccable art direction, all combine to smother the movie. And even Kate Winslet can’t break the crust.