Kate Winslet is so dead set on winning an Oscar this year that she stacked the odds in her favor by virtue of sheer quantity. If the soon-to-hit-Portland Revolutionary Road doesn't do the trick, The Reader acts as a kind of B-string backup during this season of Extremely Weighty Filmmaking. But for all of its signifiers of substance (Hello again, Holocaust!), arty credibility (What up, Ralph Fiennes?), and Winslet's renunciation of Hollywood glamour in allowing herself to appear old and ugly, The Reader is at an odd, distant remove from its audience—failing to spark the emotional investment necessary to succeed.
The setting is a drab Berlin, circa WWII, and Winslet is Hanna Schmitz, a hardworking if ignorant woman in the midst of her lonely 30s. She begins a secretive affair with a teenage boy, Michael Berg (David Kross), who reads aloud to her as a form of foreplay. Then Hanna disappears mysteriously, and years later, Michael (now played by Fiennes) finds her in a courtroom, where she's on trial for war crimes committed while serving as a Nazi guard in the camps.
It's a promising premise, but an under-realized one: The characters always stop short of taking any real action, leading to a dissatisfying lack of catharsis. The closest The Reader ever comes to eliciting an emotion is in a sort of dull tension.