Based on the award-winning book by Bernhard Schlink The Reader is an extraordinary provocative and controversial story set in post-World War II Germany. It starts when 15-year-old Michael (David Kross) becomes ill with scarlet fever and is helped home by sympathetic woman named Hanna (Kate Winslet). After his recovery he returns to thank her and is drawn into a clandestine affair with this intriguing woman more than twice his age. Their relationship grows stronger especially when he starts reading to her. But then she suddenly disappears leaving a devastated Michael who now must move on with his life. Little does he know that eight years later while he is in law school he would see Hanna again -- as one of the defendants in a court case against Nazi war criminals. Shocked at revelations about her secret past he also discovers something that will change both their lives forever. Granted Kate Winslet is one of the finest young screen actresses but her range in The Reader will astonish you. It’s an extremely tricky part that could easily lose the audience’s sympathy if done incorrectly but Winslet handles it with aplomb. She runs through the whole gamut of emotions -- aging from her 30s to 60s -- all at once sexy mysterious conflicted contrite as well as many other colors. As Michael newcomer Kross is devastatingly good the most impressive acting discovery in a long time. Although he plays 15 he was 17 at the start of filming and production had to shut down until he turned 18 for the graphic sex scenes. As the story flashes forward Ralph Fiennes takes over the role as the older Michael and does so with a touching sincerity. Lena Olin also has a strong cameo as a Holocaust survivor with definite opinions of Hanna. Although this is only acclaimed stage director Stephen Daldry’s third film he once again shows a mastery of the medium far beyond his limited cinematic resume. Like The Hours and his debut film Billy Elliot he has crafted another film to savor. The Reader isn’t necessarily the most comfortable film to watch but Daldry guides the subject matter with a delicate and steady hand giving us a complex and touching love story between the most unlikely couple. It also delves into how one generation of Germans can come to terms with the horrors of another. Daldry’s directorial restraint and power perfectly serves David Hare’s impressive screenplay and delivers a memorable movie-going experience.
Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law) becomes an unwilling hero of World War II when he rises from the bottom of the Russian ranks to a coveted sniper position with the help of Soviet political officer Danilov (Joseph Fiennes). A master at publicity Danilov turns Vassili into a national hero by publishing Vassili's extraordinary sniping exploits and together they boost the flagging spirits of the Russian army as it attempts to resist the Nazi invasion of Stalingrad. But Hitler wants this city which means Vassili's got to go. Enter the celebrated Major Konig (Ed Harris) a ruthless Nazi sharpshooter sent to Stalingrad to hunt Vassili down and kill him. Oh yeah and there's this love triangle thing between Vassili Danilov and Tania (Rachel Weisz) a female soldier.
This reviewer would watch eye-candy Jude Law in a bad Internet short and as grimy and bloody and war-torn as he gets in two hours he's still mighty fine. Oh yeah and he's good as the humble somewhat bewildered Vassili. You can't help thinking though that no backwoods kid from the Urals (Russia's version of hillbilly country) is going to have the effortless grace beauty and upper-crust Brit accent that make Law more suited for roles like the one he played in The Talented Mr. Ripley. Fiennes is fine as his backstabbing best friend. Weisz as Tania is unnecessary (and please no more closeups of her having sex fer chrissakes - her love scene with Law is so over-the-top it looks more like he's killing her than making love to her. It's a particularly cruel-looking Harris though who commands the screen in a skillful performance almost solely conveyed through his eyes and facial expressions.
Why is it Hollywood used to be able to tell a good war story without a) the nonstop carnage and b) the backside-numbing two-hour-plus run time? Director Jean-Jacques Annaud (Seven Years in Tibet) proves once again that his movies are nice to look at but lack much substance - probably why a promising epic with a good cast like this was released in March instead of Oscar season. Accents were weirdly inconsistent settings improbable and characters virtually undeveloped. Good points: The opening scene reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan with all the bloodshed but less f/x is quite chilling and Annaud gives us glimpses of creativity (the showdown between Harris and Law in the broken glass-strewn factory is one of the few inspired scenes in the movie).