Mein Kampf meets Penthouse Forum in Stephen Daldry's The Reader, a chilly and surprisingly detached adaptation of Bernhard Schlink's passion play about a susceptible yet pensive teenage horn dog seduced by the former, female SS trooper who popped his cherry.
Reader reunites Daldry with his The Hours screenwriter, David Hare, and the two collaborate on another aloof, literary period picture. The action transitions between 1995 and 1958, when 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross) first comes under the spell of Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), the stern but attentive woman who paid him a bit of kindness after the boy was felled by Scarlet Fever. Article continues below
Their kinky relationship is fueled by carnal and intellectual curiosity. Hanna willingly beds this overeager virgin, then requires that he read to her as both foreplay and post-coital wind down. Winslet and Kross go largely au natural for Michael and Hanna's formative scenes. Clothing, in fact, is optional through most of Reader's early scenes. College students spend more on fast food than Daldry spent on costumes. The film alternates chapters and sex, sex and chapters. And we await the heartbreak that usually follows when a young person (or older person, I suppose) gives of their soul so completely.
Daldry has a hard time with the tonal shifts of Reader, though. He makes an odd choice painting Michael's raw, sexual awakening on a dull palette of bleached and muted colors. Despite all the love-making, Reader is about as sexy as a wool coat. And the tone contradicts Kross's openhearted, wholly amorous performance as the smitten teenager. Winslet playfully banters with her willing partner, but saves her fireworks for the next act.
Daldry's somber mood makes far more sense in the film's stronger second half, when Hanna stands trial for war crimes committed at concentration camps and Michael contemplates whether he should reveal knowledge that could prevent serious jail time for the penitent Nazi. Daldry continues his time shifts back to 1995 to raise questions about Michael and Hanna's relationship while adding mysteries which are carefully guarded by Ralph Fiennes, who is effective as the older version of our young Romeo.
Fiennes has had a tremendous year, juggling killer comedy (In Bruges) with royal philandering (The Duchess). Here, he brings closure to Michael's difficult journey by showing us how Hanna stirred a second passion in the character: one for justice, one for the law. It's not about titillation. The Reader is a film about life's transitions. And like any kind of rude awakening, it is alternately painful, perplexing, awkward, melodramatic, and slow to overwhelm.