Stephen Daldry has directed two very different feature films, “Billy Elliot” and “The Hours,” and earned Oscar nominations for both of them. One was joyful, one was somber, but both were full of humanity: You believed in the characters, and you related to them.
How, then, has Daldry managed to make something as soulless and hollow as “The Reader”? Based on a very popular German novel by Bernhard Schlink and adapted by “The Hours” scribe David Hare, whatever legitimacy it once had must have been lost in translation, because what appears on the screen is a cold, artless lump about the Holocaust, the Nazis, and the scourge of illiteracy. (Yes, really.)
What it has going for it is a characteristically sharp performance by Kate Winslet, naked most of the time as she plays Hanna Schmitz, a secretive German woman who initiates an affair with a 15-year-old boy in Neustadt in 1958. The boy, Michael (David Kross, also naked a lot of the time), can barely believe his good fortune at having scored with a beautiful older woman, and he pursues the relationship (which is little more than a friends-with-benefits situation) with enthusiasm, rushing to her apartment every day after school to the exclusion of his friends and family. He doesn’t notice that Hanna doesn’t seem to have any other friends or connections, nor does he mind that she always wants him to read to her before they get down to business.
The actor, David Kross (who was of legal age when the naughty parts were filmed) has a youthful, innocent smile that we know is bound for frownsville when the May-December romance comes to its inevitable conclusion. Jump ahead to 1966, when he’s a law student observing a trial of war criminals, one of whom is none other than Hanna Schmitz. Michael is stricken. You can practically see the pulp novel hitting the shelves: “I Was Deflowered by a Nazi War Criminal!”
Framing all of this are scenes set in 1995 with a middle-aged Michael, now played by Ralph Fiennes, reflecting on his youth and dealing with some of its aftermath. These scenes, like about 90% of such scenes in movies like this, are unnecessary, and they are further diminished by a fact that we have been loath to admit thus far: Ralph Fiennes is one of the dullest actors ever built. He needs to be given interesting things TO DO. By himself, sitting around having flashbacks, he is a black hole of ennui.
But back to 1966. With the titillation of the film’s first half now a distant memory, Michael is grappling with his still-tender feelings for this woman and what the new facts that have come to light really say about her — and, by extension, what they say about Germany of the 1930s and ’40s. There are ethical and legal dilemmas to consider; as Michael’s law professor says, “The question is never was it wrong, but was it legal?”
Was Hanna a bad person? Was she simply “following orders”? Did she exercise compassion with the prisoners she oversaw? For Michael, it’s a civics lesson, an episode of Schoolhouse Reich. For us, it’s a squandered opportunity to examine these thought-provoking themes, wasted on characters that the movie — despite Winslet and Kross’ best efforts — won’t let us get close to.
C- (2 hrs., 3 min.; )