The only flaw in Kate Winslet's performance in The Reader is perhaps Kate Winslet's performance in Extras but a few short years ago. In the brilliant 1/2-hour Ricky Gervais comedy, Winslet, playing herself, takes the role of a WWII-era nun hiding a group of Jews from the Nazis. Between takes, she bemoans her lack of Oscar wins and cites it as the main reason she took the role.
Holocaust films, she says, are tickets to award season. "How many more movies do we need about the Holocaust? I mean, we get it. It was grim. Move on,” she said, typifying the show's caustic approach to comedy. The line was obviously meant to demonstrate the decidedly callous approach some actors have to their material (see also Kirk Lazurus's explanation of playing the mentally challenged in Tropic Thunder).
And while Winslet was merely reciting lines given to her for the show, it is difficult to sit through The Reader and not think that the film is designed partially with earning awards in mind. This is not a slight on her performance in the film, but rather the film itself. For whenever Winslet does not appear, it exudes a certain stoic, stifled prestige that smells suspiciously packaged to hand off to Academy Awards voters.
Winslet plays Hannah, a bus conductor living in Germany circa the 1950s. When she finds a young lad in front of her home afflicted with the early stages of scarlet fever, she comes to his rescue. He later returns to thank Hannah for her generosity, igniting a torrid May-December romance marked by secrecy, sex, literature, and more sex. The boy is named Michael (played by David Kross – not to be confused with the American comedian), and he finds illicit fun and escape from his prim upbringing by clandestine romps with Hannah that are punctuated by him reading to her from his school-assigned novels.
That's one way to inspire kids to read.
As the flame of their incendiary affair begins to diminish, so does our interest in the film. When Hannah vanishes, Michael pines the loss, but still manages to move onward and upward, landing in law school under the wing of an esteemed professor.
A class assignment sends Michael to a war crimes trial in which several middle-aged Frauleins sat on their hands as a group of prisoners burned. Hannah, of course, is one of the accused, and she ultimately takes full responsibility for their actions in order to conceal an even darker secret (at least to her) — her inability to read and write.
The rest of the film is set in more modern times as a now-adult Michael (played with stultifying rigidity by Ralph Finnes) corresponds with his former flame while she remains incarcerated. On and on it meanders, as though pushing toward some climactic catharsis in which a weepy, wrinkly Hannah is finally released from prison, having atoned for her sin of… illiteracy?
The film almost seems to argue that as an excuse for her abhorrent behavior, and while it is nowhere near the insulting The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, it certainly does not plead its case well enough to excuse, or even care much about, Hannah. It is not Winslet's fault, as she is required to be a cold, confident woman. The Reader is hampered by the film's script, which shies away from letting us deeper into her mind. We are only given hints as to her feelings of Michael early on in their affair, and are never invited to explore her mental state further. When her eyes get all leaky, it's unsure if it is for the lives she blindly let perish or for her shame for not being able to recite Dr. Seuss.
When she finally reconnects with the adult Michael, it's hard to feel any emotional electricity — be it love, concern, disgust or sorrow. Winslet tries to wring the scene for a sense of longing, but director Stephen Daldry only shows their relationship as one of mutual convenience and lust, but little else.
Here's hoping, though, that one of our best working actresses today will walk away with an award, only if to break her free of having to take more roles like this, that are so obviously calculated to earn them for her.