Based upon the 1995 novel by Bernhard Schlink, The Reader is the story of a young German teen, Michael Berg (David Kross), who falls in love with an older woman, Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet). After a passionate affair, the two break-up and go their separate ways, but the affect that the two have on each other changes their lives forever. A few years later, while attending a Nazi war crimes trial with his law school class, Michael discovers that Hanna is one of the defendants. Through the course of the trial, Michael realizes a secret that Hanna has held all her life and will go to any length to protect, even if it costs her life.
The premise of The Reader is very promising. It makes one wonder how they would feel if they learned that someone they loved was on trial for the atrocities Hanna is accused of, and how anyone would go to such lengths to keep a secret about themselves even if it meant the difference between guilt and innocence. Unfortunately the execution does not follow through.
While the performances of Kate Winslet (always reliable) and young David Kross are quite good, they're not enough to rescue the story. The pacing is slow and the first half hour in which the initial affair takes place is slow and very repetitive to the point where you begin to lose interest. While it picks up once Hanna is revealed as a former Nazi, it still moves quite slow. The story is told in flashback, jumping back and forth between past events and scenes depicting an older Michael's guilt, as portrayed by Ralph Fiennes. Whether this is how it was scripted or was edited to keep Fiennes in throughout the picture, the film might have been better had they allowed the story to be told completely in order instead of the frequent jumps back and forth. Unfortunately, Fiennes' performance is rather bland and average, leaving one to wonder if they would've been better off casting another less-known actor for the part.
The premise is good, but the direction and editing come across as forced, given the impression that the filmmakers knew they had a strong concept that could be a major awards winner if done right. Unfortunately, it tries too hard to be good. It feels too aware of itself and the power behind the story, and unfortunately the big emotional payoff that you know is coming at the end simply falls flat. Instead of allowing the story to be itself and to allow the emotion to fall into place, too much effort is put into trying to make it a powerful tear-jerker. When the climax is finally reached, the movie's run out of gas.
As mentioned before, the pacing is long and slow and unforunately it leads to the movie feeling long and drawn-out. Even just over 2 hours, The Reader feels a lot longer. I found myself checking my watch frequently after the hour mark!
Even though there are strong performances from Winslet and Kross, it's not enough to keep one interested in a movie that feels like it knows it has a strong premise but just wants to force the emotion into our face.