OF COURSE, watching Neil Jordan's adaptation of Graham Greene's "The End of the Affair" isn't quite the same thing as reading the novel. Reading is a deeper, more active experience. We're direct partners in the process.

If Greene gives us the hint of a miracle, we call it a miracle. If he gives us the sense that one character might have experienced religious conversion, we practically speed-roll our wheelchairs in the direction of Lourdes.

That's the mystical effect of good writing.

But as movie viewers, our attitude isn't quite so cooperative. We want things spelled out -- but not too much. If a miracle appears too obviously, it's ruined -- even in a movie as heartbreaking and sensually engaging as this one.

Ralph Fiennes plays Maurice Bendrix, a novelist living in London during the 1940s, who has been pulled back into an affair he's been trying to forget. Two years before, during the wartime air raids, his extramarital affair with Sarah Miles (Julianne Moore) ended abruptly. He's still not sure why.

Sarah, unhappily married to the wizened, bumbling civil servant Henry (Stephen Rea), stopped seeing him without explanation. They were at the height of passion, or so it seemed.

When Maurice runs into Henry one rainy night in 1946, the cuckolded husband (who apparently never knew about Maurice and Sarah) requests a meeting. It seems to Henry that Sarah has been having an affair with someone -- lately. Henry wants Maurice, whom he considers a dear friend, to find out more.

Incensed by this potential infidelity to both men, Bendrix employs a detective (Ian Hart) to get to the bottom of the mystery.

But when Henry suddenly loses interest in this investigation -- he was never one to seek too much information about his wife -- Bendrix keeps the detective on the job. A man of great jealousy, who's clearly still in love with Sarah, Bendrix means to see this through to the bitter end. He does.

No one plays morally corrupt patricians like Fiennes. He was the chillingly psychotic Nazi in "Schindler's List." He was the handsome, cheating preppy in "Quiz Show." And he was the treasonous burnout case in "The English Patient."

In "The End of the Affair," he saunters through the movie with sleek assurance. Bendrix fits him like a taut glove.

The movie would be nothing without Sarah's allure. Moore is unforgettable in the part: a seemingly remote yet passionate beauty who keeps enticing secrets behind that even gaze. Her skin is part alabaster, her delicacy is palpable. She is someone worth obsessing over.

Jordan, the maker of "The Crying Game" and "Interview With the Vampire," evokes the era magnificently. With the help of cinematographer Roger Pratt and production designer Anthony Pratt, he wraps this England in a gray-green, yet romantic pall. And composer Michael Nyman creates a perfectly lush, '40s-style musical backdrop.

As for the central story -- the passion between Maurice and Sarah -- Jordan creates so many blissfully visual moments: a shot of Sarah and Maurice touching hands in a restaurant, a moving shot of Sarah going up the stairs (Maurice's point of view) as one of her legs slips through the slit of her dress skirt; and then, an extraordinary flashback scene, in which Henry opens the front door to interrupt the lovers' upstairs tryst just as Sarah cries out her pleasure.

"What if he heard?" whispers Maurice.

"He wouldn't recognize the sound," she says with devastating certainty.

As adaptations go, "The End of the Affair" adheres closely -- devoutly even -- to the original text. But the movie shows just how difficult it is to evoke the ineffable with the blunt-nosed camera. Jordan can do almost everything, in terms of atmospherics, but fails to capture the spiritual hallelujah of the novel. When this drama reaches that elusive conclusion -- something Greene carries off effortlessly -- Jordan makes the mistake of showing us too much. And faced with such oversimplification, we lose our faith.

THE END OF THE AFFAIR (R, 102 minutes) -- Contains nudity, sex scenes. Cineplex Odeon 5, Shirlington 7.