Several years after his affair with an older woman, German law student Michael (David Kross, later Ralph Finnes) discovers that his former love, Hannah (Kate Winslet), is on trial for war crimes in The Reader. When the horrors of her past are revealed in court, Michael must balance the abstract terms of the law with his personal relationship, sorting out his feelings and how they have changed in this new light. Can he show her sympathy? Should he show her sympathy? Postwar Germany was a tumultuous time when the youth of the nation had to come to terms with the actions of the older generation and this film brings that struggle to a human level. In the end, it is not about forgiveness, but about simple understanding.
I did not care for The Reader. It started great, even though the love scenes are rushed and the symbolism is heavy-handed (water = "washing away the past." Okay. We get it. Enough with the water.). Then in the middle of the trial there's a plot twist that I will call "The Twist That Ruined The Movie." Hannah refuses to reveal a personal secret that could help her case and she goes to prison for life. I won't reveal the twist, in case you want to see the movie, but I'll make a parallel. Let's say she's allergic to peanuts. Ask yourself: if you were on trial and could either reveal that you're allergic to peanuts or be sentenced to life in prison with the stigma of murdering the weak and infirm, wouldn't you tell everyone you know not to give you peanuts? Personally, I'd make that choice faster than you can say "anaphylactic shock." Hannah chooses not to, shattering the movie's credibility beyond suspension of disbelief. On top of that, Michael knows her secret and refuses to tell anyone or even address it with her. The story could have taken any number of more interesting, more realistic directions, but instead, it takes a glorious swan dive into the ground.
The Reader is up for five Academy Awards: Best Lead Actress (Winslet), Best Cinematography, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director(Stephen Daldry), and Best Picture. Beset by strong competition in all its categories, I believe that The Reader is the weakest of the five Best Picture nominees. Its only outside chance is for Winslet, who is very popular among voters and may get a boost from her acclaimed and un-nominated performance in Revolutionary Road. Even still, I won't be picking The Reader to win any of its categories.