The Reader, Stephen Daldry, 123 mins, 15

A boy's passion gives way to grown-up German angst as his former lover's ugly past is revealed

After a glut of festive frivolity, the detox programme that is the Oscars run-up begins with Stephen Daldry's spare, sober The Reader. Based on the 1995 novel by Bernhard Schlink, The Reader features the uncomfortable pairing of sex and the Holocaust – but don't worry, this is not The Night Porter, although it is perhaps just a step away from being Last Tango in Nuremberg.

The story's hero is a 15-year-old German boy, Michael Berg (David Kross, a young actor with a puppyish touch of Michael York), who in 1958 embarks on an intense relationship with an older woman, Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet). They spend a torrid summer – sex after school, followed by sessions of him reading aloud to her from favourite books. It's only later, when Michael is a law student and Hanna is on trial, that he discovers the truth about her: she was an SS guard during the war.

Hanna's crimes and their context are the subject of the film's second half, yet you might well come out of The Reader thinking as much about the curve of Winslet's naked hip as about the horrors her character presided over. But that's the point of the film, and the novel: the disjunction between the sexual being that Michael falls for in the bedroom, and the person he learns about in the courtroom.

What Daldry's film doesn't do, as some have – Sophie's Choice most egregiously – is to exploit the Holocaust as a background for a story of vicarious emotional awakening. What happens to Michael is more a political and philosophical matter: a young German's realisation that he needs to look beyond his cushioned post-war world, and to ask questions about history and the nature of law. The Reader hooks you with sex in order to get you thinking about ethics: only in Oscars season can a film get away with such a worthy agenda.

The trouble is, though, that this doesn't leave the film with a great deal to show us. The episode at the heart of Hanna's trial concerns her part in the death by fire of prisoners under her surveillance. Mercifully, and wisely, it's an episode that Daldry's film declines to show us. We hear about it, and see Hanna's reaction to its being discussed, but that's all.

Yet this means that the film's most memorable visual content is the rather glumly decorous sex of the first part. Kross's sweet-natured eagerness and Winslet's thorny detachment never quite bring their affair alive. And, while this is never a problem in the novel, on screen there's something a little precious about the reading sessions.

Oddly, Michael reads to Hanna from English-language editions of Huckleberry Finn and Tintin, and later, Hanna's prison library seems to be stocked entirely with English books. This incongruity signals the film's linguistic confusion. The Reader is cast with German actors speaking English, and English actors pretending to be German. Hanna's reality as a character is compromised by Winslet adopting a slight but distinct German accent. Meanwhile, Bruno Ganz, as Michael's law professor, may be a sublime actor in his own language, but in English he sounds like a strangulated troll.

The film seems unsure whether it's a transatlantic prestige movie, or the German art-house film it sometimes resembles: in the 1960s sequences especially, there's a definite hint of the spareness of The Lives of Others. But why not just make the film in German, rather than this awkward compromise? The answer, I suspect, is fear of alienating Schlink's substantial constituency among Oprah viewers.

I'm not convinced that Hanna is the tour de force that Kate Winslet might one day deliver. As Michael's inamorata, she's prickly and a little too mercurial to convince. But in the courtroom, her Hanna moves into a subtler register, at once confident and quietly uncomprehending; what makes these scenes so strong is that Winslet plays them matter-of-factly, as if Hanna were attending an unusually tense local council meeting.

Other plus points include Ralph Fiennes, playing Michael's careworn older self with a solemn detachment that marks him as an exemplar of what you might call the Reliable Family Solicitor school of acting – and I mean that as a compliment. And David Hare's script effectively distils the book's prolix and often overstated moral wrangling, especially in a tautly provocative last-act speech from Lena Olin as a Holocaust survivor: "My advice is – go to the theatre if you want catharsis." Daldry's restrained, serious-minded film deserves credit for refusing us such easy catharsis. But the result is honourable, studious, a little flat. The Academy voters will love it.

Also showing

The Spirit (103 mins, 12A)

Frank Miller, the creator of 'Sin City' and '300', writes and directs this adaptation of Will Eisner's 1940s comic-strip series. Like Miller's 'Sin City' film, 'The Spirit' (above) is a stylised pulp-fiction pastiche which suspends its stars in monochrome, computer-generated urban settings. But unlike 'Sin City', it's disastrous: a barely comprehensible folly that's probably more palatable if you view it as an art installation rather than a film. Queasily obsessed by suicide, comic industry in-jokes and Nazi fetish gear, 'The Spirit' is a plotless parade of inane banter, leaden action, and pantomime acting from Samuel L Jackson, Eva Mendes and Scarlett Johansson.

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (112 mins, 18)

The BFI's Sam Peckinpah season centres on this tragi-comic cult classic from 1974, featuring a slew of slow-motion gunplay, and macho dialogue that's just made to be printed on T-shirts.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor