Life is a messy thing indeed. Motivations, ambiguous morality, atonement, and redemption all smack into one another like so many atom particles; careening off one another in ways both unique and sublime.
That is at the core of The Reader, which shows that every action has a reaction - altering lives in ways unimagined and heartbreaking, and yet, due to a tagged ending (which I initially thought unnecessary until further reflection) hope, reconcilliation and redemption of a fashion, still remain; showing that somehow, hope is the divining rod of the human condition.
Driving all the subsequent action is Kate Winslet in a rather daring performance as a lonely 30 year old woman who holds many a secret. In a subdued, yet powerful performance that is light years away from the mess that was Revolutionary Road, she manages to convey a rather tight lipped fatalism, keeping her secrets close to her vest and hiding behind a stern, seemingly harsh shell.
It's often the little things that are telling, and for me this film and its direction worked wonders, revealing its secrets slowly, giving time to see the deeper subject behind what is shown on the screen.
When the 15 year old boy returns to Winslet's apartment to allegedly thank her for befriending him, Winslet plays him like a violin, letting him glimpse her upper thigh. When she catches him oggling, she is so matter of fact in her observation "so this is why you came here".
That they then become lovers seems so natural, even though it goes against certain moral codes (harkening back to The Summer of 42 for me) - which becomes the theme of a law school sermon - there is law and there is morality, and all too often morality tries to dictate law, which should never be allowed to happen.
What then transpires, showing how lives are ruined by the choices they make, whether they feel that they actually had a choice at all, is what the film, and life are all about.
I'm not going to reveal any of the secrets, for you should let it all unfold for yourself, but will say that the concept of absolution is examined both overtly, in the case of a holocaust surviver refusing to acknowledge a German's gift for fear that she would be granting said absolution, to a much more covert notion of a country branding guilt on a select few in order to absolve its national conscience.
I found the direction compelling in the way it appeared to seamlessly move between decades, and though the minor subplot of Ralph Fiennes and his daughter at first seemed a distraction, it all comes home to roost as the film uses his relationship with his daughter to exemplify how Fiennes too has been ruined by all that proceeded. That he ultimately chooses to embrace his failings and embrace the goodness around him (his daughter) leaves us with hope - hope that perhaps we as a species can somehow embrace humanity and learn from the mistakes of the past.