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What is the nature of guilt--and how can the human spirit survive when confronted with deep and horrifying truths? The Reader, a hushed and haunting meditation on these knotty questions, is sorrowful and shocking, yet leavened by a deep love story that is its heart. In postwar Germany, young schoolboy Michael (German actor David Cross) meets and begins a tender romance with the older, mysterious Hanna (Kate Winslet, whose performance is a revelation). The two make love hungrily in Hanna's shabby apartment, yet their true intimacy comes as Michael reads aloud to Hanna in bed, from his school assignments, textbooks, even comic books. Hanna delights in the readings, and Michael delights in Hanna.
Years later, the two cross paths again, and Michael (played as an adult by Ralph Fiennes) learns, slowly, horrifyingly, of acts that Hanna may have been involved in during the war. There is a war crimes trial, and the accused at one point asks the panel of prosecutors: "Well, what would you have done?" It is that question--as one German professor says later: "How can the next generation of Germans come to terms with the Holocaust?"--that is both heartbreaking and unanswerable. Winslet plays every shade of gray in her portrayal of Hanna, and Fiennes is riveting as the man who must rewrite history--his own and his country's--as he learns daily, hourly, of deeds that defy categorization, and morality. "No matter how much washing and scrubbing," one character says matter of factly, "some sins don't wash away." The Reader (with nods to similar films like Sophie's Choice and The English Patient dares to present that unnerving premise, without offering an easy solution. --A.T. Hurley