End of the Affair, The ** 1/2
Written and directed by Neil Jordan. Based on the 1951 novel (same title) by Graham Greene. Photography, Roger Pratt. Editing, Tony Lawson. Production design, Anthony Pratt. Music, Michael Nyman. Produced by Stephen Woolley and Neil Jordan. Cast: Ralph Fiennes (Maurice Bendrix), Julianne Moore (Sarah Miles), Stephen Rea (Henry Miles), Ian Hart ( Parkis), Jason Isaacs (Father Smythe), James Bolam (Savage), Samuel Bould (Lance Parkis) et al. A Columbia release. 105 minutes. R (graphic sex scenes)
When flashbacks first were used in movies some producers feared that they might confuse the public. But the public quickly adjusted to them , and they became common. They were especially boosted in "films noirs." Later, however, some films did use them as mannered tools which could obfuscate. This, a propos of "The End of the Affair" which is based on the source book but is not "the filmed novel." The original book was by the great writer Graham Greene. He wrote superb novels and stories -- personal, political, "Catholic," as well as thrillers which he called "entertainments." He wrote movies. He was a fascinating film critic for some five years. A huge amount of his writings were made into films, the most popular being "The Third Man." Everything signed by Greene , no matter what genre it is in, revolves around problems and dilemmas of morality, conscience or faith.
Irish-born writer-director Neil Jordan is one of the star filmmakers today. Among his works, mostly good to excellent, were the early, still little-known "The Company of Wolves" (1982) "Mona Lisa, ""The Crying Game, ""Interview with the Vampire,""Michael Collins,"" The Butcher Boy." (But his last one before "Affair" was "In Dreams" (1999), an ambitious, no-sense "psychological" horror mess.)
A friend quizzed me on "The End of the Affair."
Q: I know that you loathe detailing plots, but what about giving me an idea?
A: It is a film that relies too much on flashbacks.
Q: But were there flashbacks in the source novel?
A: Yes, but I really can't answer satisfactorily since I read it way back and haven't had the time to re-read it. Impressive stuff, however.
Q: What is it about?
A: Apparently it is partly --at least-- autobiographical. Maurice Bendrix, a writer in London, meets the wife of a friend, just before World War II, at politically correct sherry party where non-Spanish sherry is served as a token reprisal against the new Franco regime.
Q: I'm interrupting you. Do you think that today's audience under 50 will get the point?
A: No. Audiences today have no knowledge of history. I proceed. Henry Miles, the husband, is a pretty high-ranking civil servant (what exactly is left vague in the movie). He's also as dull as they come though probably no more than the average civil servant. He is devoted to his lovely wife Sarah, but how she feels about him is opaque. If you're attentive, later on a dialogue states that there is no sex between them. During the war, in 1944, Maurice and Sarah have an affair. One day, a buzz-bomb falls while the lovers are in bed. The explosion (beautifully done) sends wounded Maurice tumbling down the stairs. Sophie prays to God to save the man, promising Him that she will stop the relationship. But Maurice does not know why she has severed the bond. He broods, suffers, hates. Then in 1946 he meets Henry Miles again. Improbably, the dour husband confides in Maurice, says that he suspects Sarah from having assignations with a lover, and that he thought of having her followed by a private eye but gave up the idea. Maurice's own jealousy gets lit he consults an investigator "on a friend's behalf." The operative's gumshoe, Mr. Parkis, along with his young son-in-training, spy on Sarah. What they find out is suspicious, but in fact a red herring. In the meantime Maurice's affair with Sarah is renewed. And that's where I stop my information.
Q: It sounds complicated.
A: It is extremely convoluted. Partly because another character, God, enters the story. Partly because Greene endows Sarah with Catholicism, terrible pangs of conscience and feelings of guilt. Partly because of a misunderstanding about a man Sarah sees. Mostly, however, because the film has a structure that zig-zags among several periods through numerous flashbacks and flash-forwards. These begin early on and, like the famed English bulldogs, don't let go. I found them confusing and fatiguing.
Q: Is the film well-acted nonetheless?
A: Yes, especially by Julianna Moore (Sarah) who remains for the most part a woman with a secret. Moore (nee Smith in North Carolina in 1961) has been in many films but it is in the late 1990s that she started becoming someone in demand: " Jurassic Park,," " Nights," "The Big Lebowski," "An Ideal Husband" where she played an Englishwoman, etc. Her accent and demeanor are most convincingly British here too.
Q: Why is the film rated R?
A: There are some scenes of vigorous sex, quite explicit. Sarah also displays her body, which is attractively callimammous. Even so, the love-making is rather like British food, more an necessity than an art. It is also as cheerless as the weather. Whether in one period or another, it seems to be always raining cats and dogs. It's not raining in the penultimate section of the story in which the reunited lovers go to one of those awful, depressing seaside resort Brit towns that can make Coney Island look lovely. It is Brighton, I believe (remember Greene's novel "Brighton Rock," also filmed?) where the Conservatives hold their Congresses. They are followed by Mr. Parkis and his touch-of-class Leica camera.
Q: Who's he?
A: The operative who spies on Sarah. His is an original role, well-played and quite important for the plot. However, earlier, the story had him filch Sarah's diary from her house, a document of major influence on Maurice. It is too pat and familiar an device for a movie that seesaws between the common and the uncommon.
Q: Does the film move you?
A: Not much. If you want to be touched by a film on extra-marital relations see the pinnacle of the genre, the chaste, superb "Brief Encounter" (1945, by David Lean, written by Noel Coward et al.) Here you have a puzzle more than a love story. "Brief Encounter" used Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 to magnificent effect while the score of "Affair" has something deja-heard about it --although the use of some period vocals ("My Haunted Heart", etc.) is very good. Then again, if many movies need a second viewing to be calmly re-judged, this one is at the top of the list.