I think "The Reader" is a film about how we all run from guilt - guilt at our actions, guilt at our refusals to act. Ralph Fiennes, who can portray the depression that guilt leaves better than anyone else in films, with his downturned mouth, his mumbling voice and his cold, stiff carriage, is the protagonist here. In fact the first scene of the film shows him as a forty-year-old lawyer named Michael Berg, as he coldly ends an assignation with a woman. We then go back to him as a fifteen-year-old, ill on a rainy street and taken in by a woman, Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), who bathes him and ultimately makes love to him.
What is more important, to her anyway, is that he read to her - first "The Odyssey," then a Chekhov story. "Read first, then sex," she tells him. Why does she want him to read to her? If you're a sentient being you'll quickly realize that, well, she doesn't read. She's illiterate, and that's the big secret of the film. It's hard to imagine Kate Winslet as that person, but we certainly won't mind the casting as she's naked for much of the film. Director Stephen Daldry ("Billy Elliott") apparently loves her body, and who could blame him, but it definitely wrenches the film out of its track; she seems too soignée for someone who cannot read or write. And since we're given no context for her condition, we can't even empathize with her.
There's another flashback to a few years later, when Michael is a law student and the class is taken to the trial of women who were guards at a concentration camp; among them is Hanna. Unlike the other defendants, she accepts responsibility for something that she could not possibly have done, and she alone is sentenced to life imprisonment. Here is where Michael has the chance to tell the court that as an illiterate she could not have done it, but he is silent. That is the source of his own guilt.
There is more to the film than just that, including his own failed marriage and his relationship with his daughter, but they feel like padding and add little to the film. Michael as a boy (David Kross) is attractive and bright; Fiennes is so slow and mumbling it's hard to imagine anyone hiring him as their attorney. The great Swiss actor Bruno Ganz is wonderful, however, as Michael's law school professor, and Lena Olin as a holocaust survivor of Hanna's camp also gives a nuanced performance.