Stephen Daldry's adaptation of Bernhard Schlink's much-lauded novel "The Reader" is like one of those handsome, slipcased editions of a classic that looks great on your bookshelf, even though you never feel the remotest desire to take it down. Daldry -- whose last picture was the desiccated 2002 "The Hours," also based on an acclaimed book (Michael Cunningham's novel of the same name) -- has once again made the kind of movie that's designed to leave you feeling virtuous rather than truly engaged. "The Reader" -- about a 15-year-old German boy who has an affair with an older woman, circa the late 1950s -- has the same tastefully polished veneer. It's hard to hate "The Reader": It's a perfunctory piece of work that takes no chances, and it features some good performances. But I wonder if anyone will truly love it, either. It courts approval, not passion; you can applaud it without having to remove your gloves.
When teenage student Michael Berg (the young German actor David Kross) falls ill one day on his way home from school, an older woman -- later, he'll learn that her name is Hanna (Kate Winslet) -- helps him out in a way that's dutiful but not unkind. Later, he returns to thank her, and the two slip into a romance. But for Hanna -- who refers to Michael only as "Kid" -- the relationship isn't just about sex: She entreats Michael to read to her before they make love.
As enthralled as Michael is with his older lover, normal teenage activities and flirtations beckon, and the affair disintegrates. Years later, the grown-up Michael, played by the perennially inexpressive Ralph Fiennes, learns that Hanna is -- surprise! -- a woman of shameful secrets. She has a pretty obvious one that's easy to guess, and another that's more compelling (if also somewhat unlikely). The revelation presents Michael with a moral quandary, and the decision he makes haunts him.
Schlink's novel -- which is partly a love story and partly, among other things, a meditation on the legacy of guilt in postwar Germany -- is compact, direct and unsentimental, and its brevity is part of what makes it effective. But because it's a relatively short book, it needs to be padded rather than condensed to fill out a movie's runtime. It's not that the script -- by David Hare -- contains any added plot elements. It's just that certain events that were, in the book, treated glancingly or with a minimum of fuss have extra air pumped into them. Daldry keeps the picture moving at a stately, somber pace, although he does try to kick up the action quotient with a daring reading montage, in which young Michael regales Hanna with dramatic renditions of texts by Mark Twain and Homer. (He also shocks her with a passage from "Lady Chatterley's Lover" -- though how he managed to get hold of it we don't know. Before being cleared of obscenity charges in the U.K. in 1960, the book, which had been privately printed, was quite pricey.)
"The Reader" feels weighty, all right; but it's an unsatisfying kind of weight, and Fiennes' presence, as the grown-up Michael, doesn't help much. It's beyond me how any guy who schtupped Kate Winslet as a teenager could grow up to be Ralph Fiennes, with his lipless smile and glassy-eyed gaze, but Fiennes' mere presence is probably supposed to assure us this is a classy enterprise. Lena Olin shows up as a flinty concentration-camp survivor; Bruno Ganz pops in to play a law professor with weird diction. These actors hang around listlessly in the last half of the movie, in which choices must be weighed and amends must be made.
That's the spinach we have to eat after the movie's first half, which is, by comparison, reasonably alive, thanks mostly to Winslet and Kross. Kross doesn't make the usual mistake young actors make, playing sexual inexperience as a character trait rather than a state of being. His sexual awakening is something to be gotten over, quickly. He doesn't linger on the wide-eyed wonder of it all -- instead, he strides quickly into the realm of male bravado. He's both amusing and touching.
Together, he and Winslet give the movie whatever emotional weight and meaning it has. You can't read anything about Winslet without coming across a reference to her willingness to take her clothes off, and too often when I read that stuff, I get the sense that many of the media gossipmongers hold that against her even as they pretend to applaud it. But Winslet doesn't just show off her body; she exposes herself in other ways. And what she does isn't easy, particularly in a movie climate where actresses are extremely canny about how much they withhold. I've never seen a Winslet performance (not even the frustrating one she gave in "Titanic," a movie I otherwise loathe) that came off as just a career-slash-business decision. All actors have to make money, and they choose roles for all different personal and financial reasons. But whatever Winslet's reasons may be, whenever she takes a role she peels back more layers, she gives more, than most other actresses do. As Hanna, she's a woman who refuses to allow herself to be tender, as if she were performing a self-imposed penance. She's also unself-pitying, sexually bold and insecure about her own intellect. Winslet wraps all of those ideas into one character, without needing to wave them around like brightly colored flags. Even the way she walks -- vaguely heavy-footed, as if she's not sure she deserves to tread the earth -- is a subtle choice.
And when she appears nude, there's not a shred of vanity in the way she does so. The movie's cinematographers -- the killer duo of Roger Deakins and Chris Menges -- use a palette that includes lots of naturalistic light, which makes Winslet's curves look realistic and vital, not like soft-focus art projects. "The Reader" comes off as a movie that doggedly follows some dull, preordained text. It's Winslet who dares to read between the lines.