Stephen Daldry's adaptation of Bernhard Schlink's best-selling novel is anything but a typical post-World War II film.
Set in West Germany in 1958, 'The Reader' begins with a chance encounter between a mid-thirties bus conductor, Hanna (Winslet), and a 15-year-old school boy, Michael (Kross). The older, colder Hanna welcomes the eager, innocent Michael into her bed. He becomes her reader of classic texts and she becomes his raison d'être - their affair ignoring all boundaries of age, morality and biography. However, before long reality comes crashing down around them and they are each forced to face facts about their discrepancies.
They part but fate reunites them eight years later, before tragedy once again takes control. As a law student, Michael watches in horror as Hanna's past life and role in the Auschwitz concentration camp become public. Michael, played in his older years by Fiennes, struggles all his life with his feelings for his seductress.
The costumes and set-design are period-perfect, easily transporting audiences to that bygone age - as have numerous post-WWII stories. However, Daldry's adaptation takes the novel approach of hiding his film behind, the beauty and ugliness of, an illicit affair. He also opens the debate on the various views and guilt of the country's post-war generation. The problem is that he flirts with both without breaking down the austere boundaries of either.
As the complex former SS officer, make-up-less and naked for a third of the film - Winslet gives her all to the role, which on the surface is a perfect Oscar nod contender. But the overall picture is less promising, particularly the first half, which lacks tension. In Winslet's Hanna, Daldry presents a woman whose character never fully develops. He only scratches the surface of her psychological, emotional and intellectual beliefs. Without knowledge of her moral compass, and whether she has one, it is impossible to invest in the highs or lows of her life, which is integral to the impact of the film.
Fiennes role adds much needed weight to the second half, but he too is let down by the direction and pace.
'The Reader' raises interesting arguments, but presents them without conviction.