"The Reader," starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes, is a tale of postwar guilt, responsibility and love, which unfolds in predictable prestige-movie fashion. Review by Moira Macdonald.

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“The Reader,” based on Bernhard Schlink’s novel, is a tragedy told with such precise remoteness, you feel as if you’re watching it from across the room. Two performances in it linger, but they never share a screen. Otherwise, this tale of postwar guilt, responsibility and love unfolds in predictable prestige-movie fashion; always intelligent and elegant, yet rarely startling. Director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter David Hare made something far more vivid from “The Hours” a few years ago; the difference is, perhaps, the weight of making a Holocaust movie, and of finding a way to convey horror.

The great Kate Winslet plays Hanna, a German woman with fierce eyes and an alarmingly businesslike manner who seduces a teenage boy named Michael (David Kross) in 1958 Germany. “What’s your name?” he asks her, on their third tryst. He reads classic novels to her, takes bicycle trips with her, falls in love; she, brusquely, calls him “kid.” The affair ends when she abruptly disappears. Eight years later, Michael’s law-school class attends a war-crimes trial and he sees her again — this time, accused of atrocities.

You can see why Winslet would be drawn to this role: what actor wouldn’t want to play a villain who thinks she isn’t one? Hanna argues, with sincerity, that she was only doing her job as a guard of Jewish prisoners — “What would you have done?” she asks the judge. On the witness stand, Hanna’s fierceness has melted just a bit; she looks bereft and near-trembling, as if she’d never before considered the consequences of her actions. Winslet wisely doesn’t try to make Hanna lovable and human, as a lesser actor might; instead you see the character straining, almost painfully, to control herself, to not let any emotion slip out. Later in the film, when Michael has morphed into an inscrutable Ralph Fiennes, Winslet plays Hanna in perhaps her 60s; her eyes are milky yet still granite-hard.

Daldry hits all the right notes in telling this story (early on, in a contemporary scene in grown-up Michael’s Berlin apartment, we hear the sound of trains, immediately evoking the trains transporting victims to the death camps), and yet it’s almost too artful and careful; this movie, like Hanna, is afraid to let its guard down. Outside of Winslet’s performance, there’s only one electric moment: late in the film, when a former child survivor of the camps (Lena Olin) wryly scorns Michael’s offer of recompense. “Go to the theater if you want a catharsis,” she says, crisp as a winter leaf. “Don’t go to the camps. Nothing comes out of the camps. Nothing.” It’s a bracing, chill wind blowing through an otherwise comfortably tepid film.

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Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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