Bernhard Schlink's "The Reader" was a terse, morally complex, erotically charged novel that examined the impact of German guilt on the generation born after the Holocaust. Director Stephen Daldry ("The Hours") and playwright David Hare have taken up the challenge of turning this double-edged, cerebral book into a film, and it's not surprising—movies being better at the visible than the internal—that the eroticism trumps the moral complexity.
Fifteen-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross) is a well-educated schoolboy who, in 1958, falls into a passionate relationship with a secretive, tough, working-class wo-man 20 years older. Hanna (Kate Winslet) is a woman of few words, sudden rages and a hungry sexual appetite that's matched by her equal ardor for literature; she demands, as foreplay, that Michael read Homer, Twain and Chekhov to her.
Then one day, after seeing each other in secret all summer, Hanna vanishes. The next time Michael spots her, eight years later, he's a law student witnessing a war-crimes trial—and Hanna is in the dock. She's willing to confess her role as a guard at Auschwitz, but she has one secret—a far less damning one—that she clings to with even deeper shame.
"The Reader" is not about the horrors of the "final solution." It's about how Michael deals with the fact that the great first love of his life was implicated in these atrocities. Ralph Fiennes plays Michael in middle age— a parched, solitary man of the law whose unusual relationship with the older Hanna raises questions about his own moral compass. "The Reader" can feel stilted and abstract: the film's only flesh-and-blood characters spend half the movie separated. But its emotional impact sneaks up on you. "The Reader" asks tough questions, and, to its credit, provides no easy answers.