Can a single performance redeem a whole movie? Heaven knows Kate Winslet does her damnedest to wrestle with the contradictions of The Reader, adapted from the novel by Bernhard Schlink, and it would be no great injustice if she carried off an award for it.
But there comes a point in its contorted narrative when even her noble efforts fail to conceal the dramatic cracks, let alone the moral ones. These flaws are the inevitable result of film-making that privileges tastefulness over truthfulness.
The first stumbling block comes the moment Winslet opens her mouth. The story begins in a small town in late 1950s Germany, but of course nobody is heard to speak German in this international project: instead, she and the rest of the cast speak a stilted sort of accented English, not quite as awful as Steve McClaren doing his Dutch-inflected version, but distracting withal. Somehow, Winslet makes the problem of it fade. She plays Hanna Schmitz, a trolleycar conductor who one day helps out a 15-year-old schoolboy, Michael (David Kross), who's crouched, sweating and feverish, outside her apartment block. When he later goes back to thank her, something clicks between them: she calls him, provocatively, "kid", he detects a yearning in her gaze, and they fall into bed. The affair that follows is characterised by her insistence on foreplay: he must read to her before they have sex, and over the following months we hear his callow recitals from The Odyssey, Huckleberry Finn and Lady Chatterley's Lover.
That Hanna turns her nose up at the Lawrence novel reflects the movie's own rather prissy idea of good taste. Adapted by David Hare and directed by Stephen Daldry, it wears its literary solemnity like a bishop his robes. Nico Muhly's annoying score amps up the reverential mood: this couple loves to read, it keeps telling us, not just to romp. And yet in these early stages you stay with it, largely on account of Winslet's troubling shifts between tenderness and detachment. Why does she look suspicious when he first asks her name? Why does she appear to have neither friends nor family? The mystery of it survives even the awkward disparity in finesse between Winslet's performance and Kross's: she's acting her socks off, while he's merely taking his pants off. Kross improves as the film enters its second act, eight years later, when Michael, now a law student attending the trial of low-ranking SS guards, learns why Hanna disappeared from his life so suddenly. Daldry dramatises this moment with unusual subtlety: Michael is fiddling with his shoelace when he hears her voice from the defendants' box. It seems exactly the sort of humdrum way he might learn that the woman he loved so devotedly was a Nazi.
Hanna's appearance before the war crimes tribunal is the cue for the film's agonised reckoning of a nation's guilt. Michael keeps his former association with Hanna a secret, but his professor (Bruno Ganz – curiously wooden) discerns his unease in the courtroom, while a fellow student expresses his disgust for the professed ignorance of his parents' generation: "There were thousands of camps," he says. "Everyone knew." Here is the heart of its argument: whether they were Hitler's willing executioners or not, most Germans knew what was happening, and turned a blind eye.
The Reader tees up this problem, and then sidesteps it. It outlines the horror of the Holocaust while somehow shielding Hanna from its vilest contamination. She and several other guards are accused of locking 300 Jews in a church and letting it burn during an air-raid, a burden of guilt for which Hanna takes a bewildered responsibility. But a twist in the story only fudges the issue. Watching the trial in private anguish, Michael realises, belatedly, that Hanna had always asked him to read to her because she was not able to herself. So when in court she allows herself to be implicated in the camp's murder policies, a grotesque moral reasoning is elevated to the level of self-sacrifice: a woman would prefer to be convicted as a murderer than shamed as an illiterate.
The shock of this trade-off damages the film irreparably, and makes its penitential third act less moving than it's intended to be. Ralph Fiennes plays the grown-up Michael exactly to type, a cold-fish lawyer who's divorced and emotionally distant from his daughter. Again, the film sets the culture of reading on a pedestal which, far from ennobling literature, reduces it to a means of avoiding the responsibilities of life. We see Hanna in her prison cell painstakingly teaching herself to read, as though Chekhov's "The Lady with the Little Dog" will redeem her blackened soul. But this is merely to reheat the old chestnut about Nazi officers who would return home from a day of slaughter at the camps to listen to Mozart. The appreciation of art is no guarantor of human decency.
The film almost comes to acknowledge this with a late scene in which Michael completes a journey of expiation – his own, not Hanna's – by visiting Rose (Lena Olin), a survivor of the camps now domiciled in New York. He has a little keepsake and a small financial bequest to offer her, which meets with a stern, though perfectly restrained, rebuke. She has no comfort for him, because the story of her imprisonment is "not therapy". She says, chillingly, "nothing came out of the camps", a judgement that undermines the whole project of The Reader. One might cautiously offer counterarguments – the work of Primo Levi, for example – but no one should mistake this film as having anything useful to say about survival or redemption.