Little things, insignificant things, can derail a movie. We can pretend to be as serious and objective as we like, but sometimes there's just a tiny flaw that wrecks it all, entirely for matters of personal taste.

In >The Reader, there's a scene set in Germany in 1958, in which 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross) reads to 35-year-old Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) from Homer's The Odyssey. There are multiple POV shots of the book's first page, and one can clearly see an image of two dolphins in the upper-right corner, as Michael reads the opening lines: "Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns / driven time anda gain off course, once he had plundered / the hallowed heights of Troy." I recognised those dolphins and that particular translation of those lines, because they are from Robert Fagles's 1996 translation of The Odyssey, and I know that because I bought my very own copy of the book when it was still brand new - it was the first time I'd ever read Homer, and the Fagles translation had much the same impact on me that Chapman's translation had on John Keats.

So here I am, watching the movie, and I can't stop myself from wondering why on Earth there's a 1996 English-language translation of The Odyssey in Germany in 1958, and that gets me to wondering why Michael also reads from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Lady Chatterly's Lover, or the standard English translation of Chekhov's Lady with the Dog, or really, why aren't there any classic German books, besides a copy of Rilke's poems that never apparently gets opened? Thus does my suspension of disbelief get packed up and carted away, and I'm so busy being pissy about the misuse of literature that I can hardly even pay attention to the legitmately offensive things about The Reader, such as its happy endorsement of statutory rape, or the way it positions an Auschwitz guard as a tragic heroine.

Of course, the point I'm really trying to make is that if The Reader was effective whatosever, I probably would have been too caught up in the drama to let my mind clamp down on something this unabashedly petty. Because by all means, The Reader is dismally ineffective: as art, as provocation, even as exploitation. That Odyssey scene I was harping about? Winslet and the 18-year-old Kross are both stark naked at the time. When you've got a critic paying more attention to the anachronisms in your mise en scène than the Naked! Kate! Winslet! action, you've gone terribly wrong.

The Reader: an aging German lawyer (Ralph Fiennes) stares outside one overcast morning, and remembers how he once had all kinds of sex with this really hot blonde who like to have him read before they made love. And how a few years later, in law school, he watched as she was tried for war crimes. And then how still a few years later, he started sending her homemade books on tape in prison. Why exactly this requires a flashback from the arbitrarily-chosen year of 1995 is never made even a little bit clear: there's a story involving Michael's grown daughter that doesn't really reflect back on anything in the main plot, but otherwise, the story is over in 1988. Perhaps it's because Fiennes' name appears prominently in the advertising, and they wanted to make sure that he appeared in the first half of the movie. Perhaps because self-important literary adaptations tend to have flashback structures.

Believe it or not, I don't go into movies intending to hate them. A movie has to earn my hate. Stultifying primness is one hell of an efficient way to do that. The Reader is a story of passions: sexual passion in the bedroom, intellectual passion in the courtroom, moral passion in the eyes of a concentration camp survivor. But the supremely British filmmaker Stephen Daldry - who gave us the charming Billy Elliot and the stuffy, pretentious The Hours - will have none of this strange "passion" in his film, in which everything is coldly beautiful and precisely framed, wasting not one but two extremely talented cinematographers, Roger Deakins and Chris Menges, on scene after scene of delicately shadowed, golden-lit Masterpiece Theater crap that just about any cameraman with enough time could have thrown together. This is Coffee Table Cinema: something you pick up and rifle through, enjoy how very lovely and polished it is, and think, all too briefly, about what it putatively means.

Although in the case of The Reader, you're better off never getting to what it means. As yet another in the long line of Holocaust pornography that reached its nadir in this year's execrable Boy in the Striped Pajamas, the film wants very badly to challenge us with burning questions like, "Are all people who do evil things therefore evil people?" but lacks the bloody-mindedness to follow through. We're meant, like young Michael, to fall in love with Hanna's sexual vitality, only to be horrified later on to learn that this sexy woman is responsible for hundreds of deaths, and then to reconcile all that for ourselves: but the film's sex is much too tasteful, even as it is surprisingly explicit, and the moral outrages are studded into the film mechanically. This is the Nazi sexploitation film for your grandma; me, I'd much rather take the uncut smuttiness of something like Salon Kitty, where at least you feel dirty at the end, to something where you don't feel anything at all.

Such spark of life as The Reader enjoys is entirely due to Kate Winslet, who chomps into her role and her accent, and acts every bit the imperious ex-Nazi (she only refers to Michael, dismissively, as "Kid", and snarls mean things just to get a rise out of him). It's a slightly campy performance from an actress not usually given to camp, and it's frankly one of her lesser roles; but at least she brings some heat to it, unlike Fiennes, at his mildewiest in a role that requires him to look tremulously at a lot of different people, or Kross, whose entire characterisation seems to be "I am an eighteen-year-old getting paid good money to rub my naked body against Kate Winslet's naked body", which to his credit actually does work for the first stretch of the film, but when he's called upon to play moral confusion, he's pretty much stuck, with his big eyes and terrifying lack of a chin.

I've said it once before, but it bears repeating: this film is goddamn emotionally inert. And that is something that no film about sex and Nazis must ever be. At the very least, it could be objectionable and offensive - I'd hoped it would be offensive, when I first heard the plot - but no, that would interfere with Stephen Daldry's Prestige Machine. Leaving a very pretty provocation that might get the prickly or the elderly worked up, but leaves the rest of us enjoying the dappled light on Winslet's nipples, waiting fruitlessly for the eroticism to kick in.