Delicate business is being transacted here concerning the nature of guilt, legal and moral. OK, that should scare off the action-junkie crowd. Now we can talk. Director Stephen Daldry and playwright David Hare, collaborators on The Hours, have done something profoundly right in bringing Bernhard Schlink’s controversial German novel to the screen: They’ve made it personal. What if the person you love turns out to be a monster? That question arises when 15-year-old virgin Michael Berg (David Kross) starts a summer affair in postwar Berlin with tram conductor Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet). After sex, Michael reads to her from the works of literary giants, and then this older woman who calls him Kid disappears.
Eight years later, Michael, now a law student, finds Hanna again, revealed as a former Nazi guard, on trial for war crimes. Ralph Fiennes hauntingly plays the older Michael, a divorced father given to isolation. Michael records books on tape to send to Hanna in jail and wrestles with his conscience like many second-generation Germans trying to cope with complicit guilt. Fiennes shares a scene with the mesmerizing Lena Olin that cuts to the core of survivor guilt. These are weighty issues that the film sometimes trips over. Winslet doesn’t. Her fierce, unerring portrayal goes beyond acting, becoming a provocation that will keep you up nights.