I finished the movie in tears. In fact, I watched the last forty-five minutes with tears streaming down my face. It very much broke me.
On the surface, it's about Hanna, a 36 y/o tram worker, who begins an affair with 15 y/o Michael. They stumble across each other's lives - she helps him get home on the eve of his falling ill with scarlet fever - and the affair only lasts for a single summer before she disappears from his life. She makes a request that he read to her before they have sex, which he does so gladly. He's pretty broken when he discovers she's gone, but like any resilient youth, gets on with his life.
It jumps to years later when he's a law student and discovers Hanna is on trial for crimes committed during the war (before they had their affair). I won't spoil the story for anyone who hasn't seen it. What's important is that this is the point where the many, many layers to it become apparent.
These are not perfect people. They are deeply flawed human beings struggling to survive in the ways they know best. One of the books that Michael reads to Hanna that becomes pivotal to the plot is the Chekhov short story, "The Lady with the Little Dog." It wasn't chosen willy-nilly, just like the fact that the very first book he ever reads to her is Homer's The Odyssey (it's more than just the fact that it's a journey, it's the return home after a city's destruction). There's a line in Chekov's story that completely sums up what The Reader is about.
"Every personal existence was upheld by a secret."
Secrets and how people respond to them, live with them, is what defines The Reader. Both leads make choices that lead to how they act later on in life, and it's those journeys that are so utterly compelling to watch. Winslet is stunning to behold. She doesn't actually have a lot of lines for being the lead. What makes her so mesmerizing is what she does physically. The way she holds herself. The minute expressions that slip through the mask she struggles to keep in place. Playing opposite that are the more mercurial young Michael (portrayed by a superb David Kross) and the equally enigmatic older Michael (portrayed by the inimitable Ralph Fiennes). It's impossible to look away, even when you can see the pain that is coming for everybody.
It's not an easy movie, by any means. The ending is ambiguous. The characters are far from black or white. But it's one that's going to linger with me for a very long time.