By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
Neil Jordan‘s take on the Graham Greene novel The End of the Affair is so beautiful in looks and tasteful in sentiment that it’s hard not to think the novelist and onetime film critic would have hated it. Or at least graced the director with a withering comment or two. Published in 1951, the book is based in great part on Greene‘s affair with Catherine Walston, a restless beauty with a dull husband and five children who sounds as if she appealed far more to men than to women. Greene’s personal life was such that the novel was also somewhat inspired by another of his affairs, this one with Dorothy Glover, a hard drinker who looked like a Munchkin and was described as “small and roly-poly” by no less an authority than Greene‘s wife, Vivien. In the novel, there is one woman, not two (or three), and it’s a professional writer named Maurice Bendrix who beds her. Sarah Miles is mar-ried to a civil servant named Henry, who, in time, with Greene‘s typical grim wit, becomes an assistant in the Ministry of Home Security. Sarah and Bendrix, as he’s usually called, continue their affair through the blitz, but one afternoon she breaks it off without explanation. The novel begins after the war, when Bendrix accidentally runs into Henry and insinuates himself back into the couple‘s life.
The End of the Affair isn’t Greene‘s greatest work, but it has undeniable force. As always, there’s the blunt beauty of his language; mainly, though, there‘s the insistent, unsentimental way in which Bendrix narrates the story as “a record of hate far more than of love.” But there’s something else, too, and it‘s this, more than the illicit sex or the intensity with which it’s described, or even the lives that inspired it, that gives the book its real kink: Quite unexpectedly, God becomes as much Bendrix‘s rival as Henry. Although Greene’s eccentric Catholicism might seem impossible to translate to the screen (though, in fact, there is a 1955 version with Deborah Kerr and, improbably, Van Johnson), it‘s easy to see what drew the director in. More than most filmmakers, Jordan revels not just in stories but in their telling, a fascination with form that appears in all his features. Bendrix’s is the primary voice, but a huge swath of the narration belongs to Sarah -- he tells the story, but she lays open its heart -- upending the essential concept of the all-knowing narrator. At the beginning of the novel, Bendrix is narrating a story in which ignorance is his greatest enemy; at the end, he‘s admitted the terrifying discovery that knowledge isn’t necessarily any kinder.
Jordan begins his “record of hate” faithfully enough, with period detail and Greene‘s own dialogue, but it isn’t long before the adaptation begins to seem too scrupulous, fetishistic. Instead of investing the movie with life, the immaculate clothing, the decor and even the anachronous syntax begin to weigh it down; how the actors say their lines and move about in their respective roles seems more important than the passions they‘re meant to express. When the three leads take position in a room -- Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore play the lovers, with Stephen Rea as a perfectly tamped-down Henry -- you can almost feel them trying to do it the way Jordan imagines it would have played out a half-century ago. The result doesn’t feel like a recognizably human, absolutely urgent story, but like a precious curio best left to gather dust on a shelf, an amber-tinted tableau vivant. As Sarah, Moore makes a persuasive object of desire, but as with so much of this claustrophobic movie, her performance feels more self-conscious than lived-in. With her creamy skin and perfectly wrung tears, the actor brings to mind less a flesh-and-blood 1940s woman than a 1940s screen heroine. Intentionally or not, Jordan has fashioned a film that feels not like a fresh take on a period novel but rather like an obsessive re-creation of a period movie, albeit one jazzed up with some polite nudity.
Movie-ness touches everything in this film: the music, the too-perfect production design, even the sex. This may have been what Jordan was after -- he even invents a romantic interlude that seems more suited to a movie with Deborah Kerr and Van Johnson -- but compared to the novel‘s unflinching attitude toward flesh and faith, his version feels like a cop-out. Jordan simply isn’t up to Greene‘s ferocity, and neither are his two leads. Fiennes has the sort of pliant, mewling beauty that invites punishment, and a curiously reluctant physicality; he always looks as if he’s trying to draw attention away from himself. He‘s at his best floundering alone in emotional frailty, which is why he’s so good in Quiz Show and Strange Days, films in which his screen presence complements the impotence of his characters. He seems built for hurt. But Bendrix isn‘t weak or written to be pitied; he’s unforgiving, at times cruel. Greene‘s narrator is an unpleasant man, and for long stretches in the book comes across as nearly hateful. He can be so awful that it’s impossible not to admire Greene, if just a little, for such an ugly self-portrait. Of course, the novelist was having his cake and eating it, too -- he made himself look bad, his lover look better, but he also offered up the most personal details of their affair for the world‘s delectation. Here, revenge was his art.
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