THE READER is a movie that wants you to take it seriously as a profound discussion about complicity and moral obligation. It has a cast that drips with quality, a director with form and a screen-writer famed for his intelligence and eloquence. The source novel by Bernhard Schlick was a critical and commercial success. In short, this movie so drips with earnest good intentions that the nobility of the exercise almost, but not quite, masks stink of desperation in its bid for Oscar glory.
The movie plays, like the novel, in three parts. The first takes place in West Germany in the 1950s. A sixteen-year old school boy (an impressive David Kross) has an affair with a woman twenty years his senior (a mannered performance from Kate Winslet). They enjoy each other physically but both are evasive. He tells her what she wants to hear - that he's not a star pupil. She tells him precisely nothing. She asks him to read aloud to her. He clearly enjoys the performance. And then, one day, she vanishes and he is devastated.
The second act takes place in the 1960s. The boy is a law student, and is taught to carefully separate moral responsibility from a narrow definition of legal guilt. He is nauseated to discover that his old lover is on trial for murdering Jews during the Holocaust and that he has evidence that will mitigate her sentence. He has to reconcile the woman he knew with the unfeeling, narrowly obedient and unrepentant woman he sees in court.
The third act takes place in the 1980s. The teenage boy has developed into a fastidious, emotionally repressed old man (Ralph Fiennes), with a failed marriage and an estranged daughter. For a complex set of reasons he begins to record audio books and send them to his old lover. Maybe he does this out of misplaced vanity, maybe guilt, maybe nostalgia, maybe boredom, maybe a desire to connect with anyone - Ralph Fiennes' opaque performance gives us no help in making his motives out.
In a coda, the man meets with a survivor of the specific horror that his lover perpetrated - a horror for which she has still not explicitly repented. The survivor - superbly played by Lena Olin - asks the questions I had longed to ask throughout the previous hour - the questions I thought this movie would have asked and explored. Is the mitigation - note, not the elimination - of the woman's legal responsibility for murder "an explanation, or an excuse"? With a single line the Holocaust survivor condemns the entire point of this film, which has surreptitiously asked us to empathise with, even symapthise with this concentration camp guard as a victim. It is a slippery moral equivalence to hint at, and if that's what the film-makers were about I feel they should've tackled the question more honestly rather than tucking it into a coda, let alone double-ending the film in an insultingly sentimental manner.
THE READER is on release in the US and UK. It goes on release next week in Greece and will play Berlin 2009. It opens on February 6th in the Czech Republic, Singapore and Brazil. It opens on February 19th in Australia and Iceland, and on February 25th in Belgium and Germany. It opens on March 6th in Norway; on March 23rd in Poland; on April 2nd in the Netherlands and on April 25th in Japan.