Kate Winslet has played any number of feisty, intelligent women over the years. Even when she plays a bored suburban housewife, in films like Little Children and Revolutionary Road, her characters tend to believe that they are somehow better and smarter than their neighborsand on some level, they often are. So it comes as a bit of a shock to see Winslet in a role where her character doesn't seem to be all that bright, really, and where her character ultimately wants to be regarded as anything but exceptional. But that describes Hanna Schmitz, the role Winslet plays in The Reader, a film that is partly about a woman who lives in post-war Germany, and whose past involvement in Nazi atrocities eventually catches up with her.
There is more to the story than that, though. Based on a novel by Bernhard Schlinkwhich was selected for the Oprah Book Club in 1999the film is also about a teenaged boy who has an affair with this woman despite knowing nothing about her, and then, after learning about her past, is forced to look at their relationship in a new and more disturbing light. While the bulk of the story is set in the late 1950s and 1960s, it is told from the point of view of Michael Berg when he is an adult (played by Ralph Fiennes), living in the 1990s and looking back on the fling he had with Hanna when he was just a teenager (David Kross).
The young Michael meets Hanna essentially by accident. First he gets sick on a tram, and she, being a tram conductor, comes to his aid. Later, after he has recovered from his illness, he returns to her apartment to thank her for her help, and he happens to catch a glimpse of her partly naked. She notices that he has seen her, and before long, on one of his subsequent visits, she contrives to get him naked too, which soon leads to an affair that lasts all summer long. (Incidentally, it is only after their third tryst that they even bother to tell each other their first names.)
Since Hanna is 36 and Michael is only 15 when they first meet (the actors were 32 and 17 when the film went into production), some people have complained that the film romanticizes the exploitation of minors. Others have defended the film by saying that the relationship would have been perfectly legal in certain times and places (does that include post-war Germany, though?), or, more absurdly, that boys cannot be exploited because they're too eager for sex anyway. Both sides, however, may be missing the fact that the film itself suggests that Michael's affair with Hanna goes on to have a negative long-term effect on his life, effectively undermining his ability to form lasting relationships with women his own age. So while the scenes between Hanna and Michael are certainly graphic, there is also a note of caution here.
The affair itself follows an arc that is all too typical: first the fiery passions, then the casual familiarity, and then finally the doubts, the jealousies and the arguments. There are some interesting wrinkles along the way, though. Michael is a student of literature and ancient languages, so Hanna asks him to read to herand he does, gracing her with everything from ancient epic poems to modern novels and plays, and even comic books like Tintin. One sign that their relationship is almost over comes when they get into a fight and, at the end of it, Hanna drops a rather large book on the bed and utters the simple command: "War and Peace, kid."