Remember the first time you fell in love, only to find that the love of your life had a deal-breaking secret? Chances are, the secret wasn’t as bad as the one Kate Winslet’s character carries with her in The Reader, the first film directed by Stephen Daldry since The Hours. Winslet stars as a headstrong German woman who takes in a sickly young man (David Kross) she finds passed out in an alley; as a thank you, he gives her flowers and she, in turn, deflowers him. Over a stretch of time, they establish a system: in exchange for sex, he reads classic books and epic poems to her.
The film’s sexually charged first half presents a psychological character study that is as familiar as it is explicit. I won’t give away the movie’s big secret, which is revealed in the movie’s dramatic second half, but I will say it’s not all that surprising. Yet the unusual turns the story takes from that point on make the film challenging and engrossing. Winslet creates a tricky character, one with a real inner life—you may find yourself with conflicted feelings towards her at different points in the film, which is just right.
The story is framed by modern-day scenes of Ralph Fiennes playing the teen lover as a grown man, which is one of the best things about the movie. Kross’s character and performance are lacking in depth—you often wonder just what he’s thinking, which wouldn’t be a problem on the written page but leaves a void in the film. Fiennes, on the other hand, does wonders with a role that could have been a mere plot device. Unlike Kross, you truly feel his inner torment.
Based on the novel by Bernard Schlink, this is a very good, always interesting story, the cinematic equivalent of a page-turner. Daldry’s direction can be self-consciously artsy; instead of completely losing yourself to the story, you may often find yourself noting how pretty everything looks. The film is clearly based on a book, as the story not only goes in some inevitable directions, but some especially dramatic scenes feel as though they could have ended with a new chapter heading.
There are two confrontations near the end of the film, one with Fiennes and Winslet, the other with Fiennes and Lena Olin. These scenes are so beautifully acted and written, they are the best in the film and completely salvage the scenes that don’t entirely convince. Olin is only in the film for a few minutes and gives a knockout performance.
A nice touch is an end credit tribute to the late Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella, the film’s producers. The film contains elements of their best work: complex human emotion, tortured romance, picture-perfect landscapes, and a layered story-within-the-story.
There are three valuable life lessons I took away from this movie: first, love is joyous and hard to deal with when it’s over; second, the ability to read is one of our most valuable learned traits; and finally, sometimes, even though I’d rather watch Die Hard than a film “from the director of The Hours,” a Kate Winslet period drama can be both food for thought and highly entertaining. MTW