Tepid adaptation of the Bernhard Schlink bestseller about a German teenager (David Kross) who has an affair with an older woman (Kate Winslet, naked as usual) in 1958 Berlin, then discovers, years later, after her sudden disappearance, that she has been name-checked as an Auschwitz guard in a concentration camp survivor's memoir. The story jumps around in time as the adult version of the boy, played by Ralph Fiennes, reflects on his mixed feelings.
There's nothing abjectly horrible about this film. It's stately and sober, clearly designed to win Oscars. But it has no heart.
While it's difficult to discuss the film's major problems without giving away the big revelation (which, frankly, is plainly telegraphed several times in advance), I will say that the revelation, which explains the motivation behind nearly all of Winslet's character's actions, is poorly handled. Where the film should strive to examine moral uncertainty, it tries to be a love story. Where it should emphasize the passionate devotion the man feels towards his erstwhile lover, it turns him into a moralist instead.
What I'm saying is that while the plot is technically solid, the direction tries to work our various emotions at exactly the wrong times. My heartstrings were begging to be pulled, but they were only given a few lackluster tugs. I'm not totally surprised, as director Stephen Daldry (who also helmed the dull The Hours and the overrated Billy Elliot) is what I'd call an "art house hack". He works with willing actors who can be great, yet gets only competent, shallow performances out of them.
Further demerits for what is becoming an increasingly dated filmmaking device: having English actors play foreigners, and then making them speak English with foreign accents. (The supporting cast, sans Swede Lena Olin in two(!) small roles, is German – though they too speak English throughout.) Winslet and Fiennes don't quite come across as Colonel Klink laughable, but it's a hoary bit of technique. Imagine if a German cast, in a German film, spoke German with phony English accents because they were portraying Brits: it would be ridiculous.
I didn't hate The Reader. I didn't even really dislike it. It's okay. But it pales in comparison to the more ethically challenging, and authentically German, The Lives of Others, which also deserves more credit for finally exploring a different part of German history. It seems you can't have an Oscar season without a Nazi- or Holocaust-themed drama, but what can be said that hasn't already been said in a dozen earlier, better movies?