NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stephen Daldry's first two feature films earned him best director Academy Award nominations and his latest offering, the Holocaust-haunted "The Reader," debuts this week with a dose of outsider Oscar buzz.
"The Reader," based on Bernhard Schlink's novel of the same name, tells the tale of a 15-year-old German boy who becomes involved in an affair with a woman twice his age who is hiding a dark secret -- her involvement in the Holocaust.
"This is not a Holocaust movie, it is a movie about the second generation and how you come to terms with and how you can approach living in a society and loving in a society that has been involved in genocide," Daldry said in an interview.
Starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes, the film -- opening on Wednesday in major U.S. cities and elsewhere in January -- has received mixed but generally warm reviews and several critics predict it will be in the Oscar mix.
Todd McCarthy of Variety said "The Reader" is "sensitively realized and dramatically absorbing, but comes across as an essentially cerebral experience without gut impact."
Rex Reed of The New York Observer described the film as a "masterpiece" and Tom O'Neil of the Los Angeles Times wrote that it "is a serious contender in all top Oscar races."
On the Los Angeles Times "The Envelope" buzzometer, which ranks Academy Award chances according to a variety of critics, Daldry is now seen in seventh place in the running for best director, while the Movie City News "Gurus o' Gold" ranking put the film at eighth for best picture.
"Stephen likes to take a lot of time, which I'm sure gave the producers headaches, but he really wouldn't move on until everything had been explored," said Fiennes, who plays the young boy Michael when he is grown up.
"He doesn't come with a fixed idea, he has strong notions and instincts about how a scene should be played."
Daldry says he spent plenty of time in Germany growing up and as an adult and was drawn to the novel "The Reader" and the questions it raises.
"I want the audience to feel torn," he said. "In such a complicated story and in such a complicated moral landscape it would be facile to tie it up too easily."
"I think people need to question a series of motives for both characters and come to their own conclusion about what they were doing. I didn't think it was my job as a filmmaker to tie it up all neatly."
For the role of the young boy, Daldry cast German schoolboy David Kross, who was 16 when he first auditioned for the role and turned 18 during filming, when the bedroom scenes were then shot between Kross and Winslet. He also had to learn English.
"The Reader" follows Daldry's 2002 film "The Hours" about how a novel by Virginia Woolf effects three generations of women, for which actress Nicole Kidman won an Oscar, and his 2000 debut with "Billy Elliot" about a ballet-dancing schoolboy in a northern England mining town.
In the past few years, Daldry has been directing "Billy Elliot the Musical," for which Sir Elton John wrote the music. The show has played in London, where it won several Laurence Olivier Awards, in Sydney and most recently opened on Broadway in New York City to rave reviews.
"I'm always surprised by any success," Daldry said.
Editing by Claudia Parsons and John O'Callaghan