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HIMMLER OF '42
Winslet owns cradle-robbing postwar drama

THE READER

Rated:R
Studio:The Weinstein Company
Director:Stephen Daldry
Cast:Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, Karoline Herfurth, Hannah Herzsprung, David Kross
Genre:Drama

If it ends up contributing nothing else to cinema, The Reader can always lay claim to having invented the concept of the meet-puke. One fateful day in 1958, 15-year-old German Michael Berg (David Kross) throws up outside the apartment of Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet). From that unconventional moment of intimate bonding springs a torrid affair that sees the 36-year-old transit employee standing the wondering boy to repeated bouts of sexual athletics, each time accompanied by a personal ritual of great import that she requires him to perform. Sticking his finger down his throat for old timesí sake? No, reading aloud to her from whatever bits of literature he can get his hands on. Either Hannaís love of the printed word is boundless or she is fascinated by what she can get others to do. Perhaps a little of both.

Their relationship has a short shelf life, and for more than the obvious reasons. One day, Hanna simply vanishes. The next time Michael sees her, it is eight years later; he is now a law student at university, while she is a co-defendant in a high-profile war-crimes trial that embodies their entire nationís awakening to its shameful recent past.

Anglo actors who attempt to portray Germans tend to display all the verisimilitude of a season of Hoganís Heroes, but Winslet has their cadences and mannerisms down cold (literally). Even when seducing Michael, she regards him with something between blithe contempt and mild reproach. Her only expressions of genuine joy are triggered not by his company per se, but by the content of whatever written passage reads to her at a given moment. Clearly, ideas and achievements mean more to her than people. Hmmm Ö wonder where she could have picked that up.

Still, The Reader has no real through line beyond the theoretical examinations of reformist zeal, casual denial and hypocritical scapegoating that it juggles somewhat successfully. Director Stephen Daldry (The Hours) and screenwriter David Hare adapt Bernhard Schlinkís novel into a shuffling, episodic entertainment thatís undermined by inconsistent casting. Krossí Michael is destined to mature into a haunted adult played by Ralph Fiennes in the movieís framing sequences, but the kidís droopy bangs, liver lips and nonexistent chin make it more likely that he will end up hawking Macs on TV than starring in The English Patient.

The deficiency isnít merely cosmetic. Though the power dynamic in the Michael-Hanna relationship is necessarily off, a movie like this demands that both parties be equally weighted dramatically. But Kross brings to the role nothing beyond whatís on the page, widening his eyes to each new heartbreak and orgasm as if heís in a garden-variety coming-of-age story. Combine that with frequent lurches from one decade to the next and the movieís only constant is free-floating guilt. And guilt isnít much to hang a commitment on, even for two hours.

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