"The Reader" is adapted from Bernhard Schlink's novel, the first German work of fiction to top the
New York Times
It grew from an experience from Schlink's youth - he discovered that the teacher who taught him to love literature had a dark side, creating a mix of gratitude and revulsion.
His emotions (and his love for the written word) grew into an idea that grew into a book, hailed as a masterpiece that helped a post-war generation of Germans come to terms with the previous generation's complicity in the Nazi regime.
"The Reader" starts in post-war Berlin, where a bookish 15-year-old, Michael (David Kross), is out of school and recovering from scarlet fever.
When he's strong enough, the first thing he does is thank the transit worker (Kate Winslet) who carried him home when he collapsed near the trolley.
They embark on a torrid affair, which is equal parts books and sex. The older woman likes to be read to, and Michael, needless to say, likes the recreation.
There is a bittersweet element to this, but "Summer of '42" it ain't. Winslet's character is much older, but she's also guarded, secretive, haunted, sometimes cruel, and, one day, she's just gone.
Michael is only 15, so there's a predatory aspect to the affair, but he's also European, and in European cinema almost every mom is like Stifler's mom in "American Pie," so it feels more benign than it might otherwise.
That all changes when, years later, as a law student, Michael is assigned to observe the trial of several female death-camp workers accused of assigning Jews for execution, and there, on the stand, is his mysterious lover.
It's both the most dramatic and fateful moment in the movie. Details emerge during the trial to make Michael feel especially violated and abused, and lead him to an act of vindictiveness that haunts him as an adult (played by Ralph Fiennes).
At the same time, the trial puts both characters in the same cavernous room without really requiring them to reconnect - Michael merely watches from a distance.
Schlink can use the writer's tools to link the characters as he pleases - sharing their thoughts or memories, shading their psyches. In the movie, the two remain isolated, and to some extent impenetrable.
Winslet's character does little to explain or defend herself, and while Michael looks on in tears and anguish, the lengthy trial does not add to our understanding of his pain.
Fiennes' grown-up version of the character exhibits the iciness and reserve apparently caused by Michael's trauma, but that's something that's explained to us, rather than something deeply felt and understood.
In fact, Michael's wounds seem insufficient to excuse the way he withdraws from his wife and daughter.
Winslet's been justly praised for her work here, but her contribution is mostly confined to the first half of "The Reader."
Even when she reappears at trial, and in jail, the story forces her to be listless and stoic, and the movie certainly never recaptures its early life. *