Once again drawn to a tale that alternates between (and often parallels) intrinsically connected pasts and presents, The Hours director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter David Hare exhibit, with The Reader, a continued inability to thrillingly translate literary forms to the screen. Even greater than it was in their previous Virginia Wolf-centric collaboration, the problem is that the two mediums aren’t necessarily natural bedmates, as piercingly evidenced by the filmmakers’ method of adaptation, in which faithful straightforwardness gets the particulars correct but makes their source material’s plot tropes, symbols and mirroring structure both simplistic and obvious. Transposing German author Bernhard Schlink’s novel about a young boy’s maiden sexual relationship with an older woman and, years later, the devastating revelations that come to light about his lover’s true identity, Daldry and Hare’s film has the stately polish and thoughtfulness that’s come to define award-courting season, a sort of faux-highbrow atmosphere whose measured deliberateness, when matched by intense star turns, implies prestige. Yet even a minor peek underneath this elegant surface reveals clunky conventions and superficial shorthand dramatizations, both of which are delivered with self-important sophistication intended to mask the fact that the affair is no more graceful or profound than your average Hollywood mediocrity.
Which is a shame, as The Reader occasionally bumps up against the pressing, universal tension that derives from furiously wanting to alter the past, and yet recognizing that not only is said desire impossible, but that one’s anguish over this powerlessness can never be fully assuaged. This discord blooms in the heart of 15-year-old Michael (David Kross), who, stricken with scarlet fever in 1958, is aided on his way home one day by thirtysomething stranger Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet). When he returns months later to thank Hanna for her kindness, she catches him peeking at her putting on stockings and responds by bathing him, pleasuring him, and then having him read to her. Their affair, depicted through the prism of adult, divorced Michael’s (Ralph Fiennes) remembrances, is given flickering vitality by a few early offhand images (such as Michael’s feet racing to another rendezvous). However, a dinner sequence in which flatware clink-clanging ignites Michael’s memories of devouring Hanna is a thing of eye-rolling silliness, and moreover, their initial courtship—he tentative and excited by his first lessons in carnality, she concealing concern over their May-December amour with sternness—feels basic, familiar. And as Michael begins regularly visiting Hanna, Daldry’s grip on the material quickly goes slack, beginning with the director’s insertion of a needless, upfront articulation-of-theme from a teacher who opines that secrets define character.
This blunt thesis statement is followed by Michael telling Hanna that “I didn’t think I was good at anything” and, intriguingly, a cutaway to the sight of him confidently, joyously dominating a game of gym-class handball. It’s a tantalizing suggestion of dueling deceptions to come, but alas, The Reader never makes good on that promise, as once Hanna suddenly disappears, and her young beau grows into a joyless, emotionally detached law student studying, in 1966, under the tutelage of Bruno Ganz’s professor, Michael is reduced to a man conflicted but not particularly complicated. Attending the war crimes trial of female SS guards who stood by as 300 Jews burned to death in a church during the Death March from Auschwitz, Michael is stunned to find that Hanna is one of the accused. It’s a discovery that, regrettably, obliterates any potential focus on his own hinted-at (self-)deception and, instead, pivots the action around his agony over both adoring, and now despising, his former erotic muse—who, to make matters worse, used to make doomed inmates read to her, thus saddling Michael with the added realization that he unwittingly served as Hanna’s concentration camp prisoner-by-proxy.
Michael’s love/hate turmoil propels The Reader into a flip-flopping second half concerned with his attendance at the trial—in which he realizes that Hanna is secretly illiterate, hence her requests to be read to—and his adult efforts to grapple with the past, which mainly involve making audio recordings of books for the incarcerated Hanna. All the while, narrative echoes begin piling up, each of them so tidily schematic that the story’s literary roots become distractingly glaring, a situation compounded by two protagonists who are embodied with earnest gravity by Winslet and Kross/Fiennes, yet, like the many plot device-only peripheral figures, remain fuzzy, shallow creations. Even more than the book-on-film atmosphere and the pitiful, disengaging old-age makeup Winslet eventually dons, it’s the filmmakers’ inability to immerse themselves in, and wrestle with, their characters’ distress that ultimately proves most troublesome. Though nominally about individuals’ inner—and, by extension, post-Holocaust Germany’s national—struggles with history, The Reader remains a stiff, external affair, too refined to muck about in its protagonists’ consuming confusion, and too leaden and contrived to allow anything to organically materialize, epitomized by a final conversation between Michael and the sole church-fire survivor (Lena Olin) that takes great pains to spell out those very thematic points which, in the name of subtle storytelling, should best be left unspoken.