Release Date:  January 9, 2009 (wide)
Rating:  R (for some scenes of sexuality and nudity)
Genre:  Drama, Adaptation
Run Time:  123 min.
Director:  Stephen Daldry
Actors:  Kate Winslet, David Kross, Ralph Fiennes, Bruno Ganz, Jeanette Haine, Lena Olin, Alexandra Maria Lara

Reading is in a state of crisis, particularly among young boys. A report from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2004 showed declines in reading across all groups studied, with the steepest rate of decline among the youngest age groups. Reading among men has declined more severely than reading among women.

What might cause young boys to take up reading again? How about a movie in which a teenage boy has to read books to a woman in her 30s as “payment” for sex with her? Literature as aphrodisiac. That might just turn around those worrisome trend lines. 

Such is the arrangement between Hanna (Kate Winslet) and Michael (David Kross) carried out in The Reader, directed by Stephen Daldry (The Hours). The film is an adaptation of a Bernhard Schlink novel that gained popularity as an “Oprah’s Book Club” selection.

Hanna first encounters Michael in West Germany in 1958, sick and obviously in some distress. She takes him to her apartment and helps him clean up. He soon learns he has scarlet fever—so sick he “couldn’t even read” he tells Hanna months later, after returning to her apartment to thank her for her earlier kindness. While there, he steals a glance at Hanna as she dresses. She notices. He gets dirty doing some work for her, and she tells him he must bathe before returning home. He undresses for the bath. Now it’s Hanna’s turn to stare. She brings him a towel and tells him to dry off. She’s not wearing any clothes.

So begins an affair between the two. The scenes of sex between the two actors are very explicit, and they take up a large part of the film’s first 45 minutes. Michael, eating at home with his family after his first tryst with Hanna, smiles as he remembers their lovemaking, and the film graphically shows us his remembered thoughts.

Eager for more sexual encounters with Hanna, Michael begins to make regular visits to her apartment. She obliges, over and over again. But eventually, she demands something more from Michael, whom she calls “kid.” What she desires from Michael, beyond the sex, is to have the boy read to her. Huck Finn, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Odyssey. Each time Michael visits, he must read to Hanna before he can make love to her.

Their relationship soon comes to an abrupt end, but several years later, Michael, now a law student, encounters Hanna again—at a trial for Nazi war criminals. Hanna, a defendant, is one of several former concentration-camp guards charged with specific crimes, and she shoulders a legal burden that Michael knows is not entirely hers to carry. He hears advice from his instructor (Bruno Ganz) and fellow students on how to react to the trial, even as he stays silent about his past relationship with Hanna.

Decades later, Michael (now played by Ralph Fiennes) re-establishes contact with Hanna in prison. As he struggles with a failed marriage, he sorts through the ramifications of his earlier relationship with Hanna. (We learn only then that he was 15 when he slept with Hanna.)

The Reader may be a well-regarded novel, but this film adaptation is exploitative and ineffective in making the emotional connections between Hanna and the act of reading, and being read to. The film spends too much time on Michael’s bewildered but excited perspective as he lives out a sexual fantasy. Its focus on sexual intimacy between a teenager and a much older woman is made without apology, although the older Michael hints that the lack of openness that strains his adult relationships may be traced back to his relationship with Hanna.