There is nothing weak-willed about Stephen Daldry's strong-spirited and powerfully propelling adaptation of Bernhard Schlink's best-selling novel The Reader, whose reading of the Holocaust is a riveting reminder that not all its stories have been bookended by biographers and Hollywood on one of its bathetic benders.
Indeed, this is no banal bedtime story — albeit much of the action graphically revolves around the bedroom exploits of a busy bus-ticket taker and the young man she takes for a ride in post-World War II Germany.
Forewords as foreplay: The two turn each other on, turning pages; homing in on Homer, the teen Michael Berg (David Kross) teems with hormones as he reads aloud to his sexual seductress, the reading all part of their romantic rites.
The Age of Innocence as coitus interruptus? The fact that the immature Michael is so very much younger than 30-ish Hanna Schmitz (Golden Globe-nominated Kate Winslet), with whom he's so smitten, lends the tale a somewhat tawdry Mai-Dezember tinge that topples onto a much- bigger revelation coming at the film's midway point.
Pointedly, the movie, opening Dec. 25, has been projected to be an Oscar contender and star Winslet a possible winner for her role as the older woman with a woeful and wicked past.
Director Daldry doesn't dawdle in his storytelling; his "Reader" makes book explicating moral conundrums when history and the heart are so hopelessly deadlocked together.
As an older, successful Michael (Ralph Fiennes) discovers the truths of his long-ago tryst, history has its own hormone replacement therapy, breaking the heart and memories in two as Hanna's hateful past is revealed to be entwined with the enmity it took to be a concentration camp guard with all the power and the Führer that that entailed.
Schlink's slinky premise is promisingly engaged on screen by Daldry's daring, turning a page-turner into a screen saver of moral complexities, as both the old and new Germany take pole positions on a speedway racing to forget, if not forgive.
Has Daldry, director of the disarmingly enchanting "Billy Elliot" (2000) — which has now danced its way to Broadway box-office bravos with the peerless director accompanying its every pirouette along the way — a certain affinity for breaking through the morass that is a young man's heart?
His breakthrough "Billy" and this breakthrough Michael seem to suggest that. Not that the one — the former, a youngster discovering that everything is beautiful at the ballet, while the latter is confused by life's missteps — would be confused for the other.
"Well, actually," muses the director of both boys, "I hadn't actually made that connection. I don't know if one could compare and contrast; they're so very different."
But more of the same when realizing how buffeted about they are in their own broken-down worlds, where it doesn't so much take a village to raise them from their surroundings but a deus ex machina.
Billy Elliot takes to ballet; Michael tangos with a woman dancing on the precipice of perdition, their music of the night straining at the strings.
But it is in "The Reader" that the type is turned topsy-turvy. "There is a need to perceive these perpetrators as monsters," says Daldry of such Godzillas as the guard played by Winslet, seemingly so benign, but with such a horrid past, giving more credence to the epithet of "the banality of evil." Indeed, to dismiss Hanna with a blanket of broad strokes is to miss any vestige of humanity that might make her evil even more ineffable.
"Don't forget," says the director, who has unforgettable credits, including the leading theaters of the world, "that this was an act of genocide by the German people. We have learned since the war that it was a crime committed not just by a few bent on wild [rampages].
"This all took place while the German people went on with their everyday living."
Collective guilt as galvanizer? "This was a crime perpetuated by very real people — like Hanna Schmitz, who didn't think of herself as some great anti-Semite.
"One of the tragedies that Mr. Schlink talks about is the realization of how his parents' generation were involved, [morally implicated by action or inaction], in one of the greatest crimes in history, and how they have to come to terms with it if they are to move forward."
Such is the fulcrum that faces the old and new Germany represented by the two lovers of "The Reader," which, explains Daldry, is Chapter 1 in evolvement, "beginning the process of understanding" both generations' needs.
In a way, "The Reader" represents a welcomed revisited chapter in Daldry's canon of work; this is the third time he is working with playwright/screenwriter David Hare.
Daldry's own read of the Holocaust came early on; coincidentally, he confides, "my first exposure happened through a German teacher, who talked frankly about the war," recalls the acclaimed director who spent some of his childhood abroad, living with German families. It was a time when school recess couldn't put a stop to the gossip of teachers rumored to once have been collaborators or Nazi sympathizers.
Such were the games kids play; gossip makes its way in the adult world, too, such as, these days, rumors that Daldry — whose direction of a theatrical "An Inspector Calls" was called brilliant and who has landed Oscar nods for a quartet of actresses, including a take-home golden boy for Nicole Kidman in "The Hours" — will spend his future hours pondering an operatic version of that tale revolving around the world and work of Virginia Woolf.
Did someone just cry wolf? "It's enough for now," he says of such a venture, as the director of "The Reader" skips to the end of his own story to reveal the conclusion he's drawn.
"My next step will be a holiday. I've been working hard and I need one," he laughs.