The End of the Affair
Director: Neil Jordan. Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Julianne Moore, Stephen Rea, Ian Hart, Sam Bould, Jason Isaacs, Deborah Findlay, James Bolam. Screenplay: Neil Jordan (based on the novel by Graham Greene).


Neil Jordan's The End of the Affair is about infidelity, which is fine, but also commits infidelity, which isn't. The first two-thirds of the film offers the most controlled, dexterous cinema I had seen all year, except for the risky, cryptic mysteries of Eyes Wide Shut. Suddenly, a scene comes out of nowhere in which one character chases another through a city for several minutes, a development which seems incongruous to the stately, deliberate, though by no means dull movie that preceded. If that moment seems shaky, everything that follows it is a total disaster. The End of the Affair cannibalizes its own virtues and melts down more completely than any movie in recent memory. What precedes this collapse is so good that I'm rating the film more highly than it may deserve. Nonetheless, I left the theater with the awful feeling that the movie's final chapter had flopped so badly I felt embarrassed and confused trying to remember what I'd liked so much to begin with.

One of the angriest books ever written about love, Graham Greene's novel consists of the attempts of a writer named Maurice Bendrix to discover why his married lover, Sarah Miles, abruptly exits one of their trysts one afternoon and refuses ever after to see him again, or even call. Beyond the fact that Bendrix's anger is so searing he can't organize any other thoughts, his investigation into Sarah's disappearance is hobbled by two faulty assumptions: he insists on codifying their relationship into a drama, a narrative, when it is actually a mystery, and he fails to grasp that as avid a loverr as Sarah could ever feel such fervor for any anything besides sex. What is great about Jordan's adaptation, which, typically, he both wrote and directed, is that he and his collaborators make the early and middle stages of The End of the Affair both sexually candid and naggingly elliptical. Two things that are incredibly hard to do in the movies, particularly in the late 90s, are to film sex scenes that are frankly erotic without seeming exploitative or silly, and to construct a tight series of images that emanate from a character's perspective—not just told from his perspective, which is easy enough, but revealing in every visual, aural, and temporal dimension of his state of mind.

The End of the Affair manages both of these tasks, for which Jordan and cinematographer Roger Pratt deserve primary credit. As Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes) remembers his first meeting with Sarah (Julianne Moore), at a dinner party she hosts with her bureaucrat husband Henry (Stephen Rea), the film feels airbrushed and a tad bit empty. Jordan has recruited some of the best designers in the business, but the last thing this film is about is sets and gowns. Light gleams off of every surface, the focus tends toward softenss, and the actors seem to float through the air; we know we are looking at memories, and probably sanitized ones. Not so as Bendrix and Sarah first meet for a movie and lunch—he asks questions about herself and Henry, ostensibly as research for an upcoming book—and their mutual attraction is as evident to them as it is to us. By the time the couple are making love in Sarah and Henry's upper drawing room, the light is still pearly but the details are sharper and the scene fuller. Pratt's lenses catch everything—skin, fabrics, body parts, furniture—and we know we are glimpsing Bendrix's most intimate memories. The effect is definitively cinematic, a particular accomplishment in adapting a book that is so definitively literary.

The movie follows more scenes of Bendrix and Sarah meeting, mostly in his apartment. Again, showing exquisite control over the audience, Jordan and Pratt capture the characters making love during the bombing raids on London without suggesting any florid claims (their love was greater than the war outside!) or untenable analogies. The war and the affair have nothing to do with one another, except that they are happening at the same time. And then, suddenly, the two do merge, or seem to, because Sarah walks out on Bendrix after a shattering scene in which he steps briefly into the hallway and the building is blown to bits. Sarah presumes he has died. When he re-enters the room minutes later, however, her face expresses not elation but sorrowful regret, and she leaves with no explanation.

Indeed, for all the glories of the Bendrix-Sarah scenes, the main narrative of The End of the Affair really has to do with Bendrix's attempts several months after these events to understand her change in feeling. The characteristically repetitive arpeggios of Michael Nyman's score perfectly encapsulates Bendrix's overheated but stuck thinking, running through the same scenario over and over, learning nothing, getting nowhere. He even volunteers as a "favor" to the oblivious Henry, who also doesn't know to where Sarah has disappeared, to search her out. The film seems to share his conviction not just to find Sarah but to find out about her: who is she? Why did she do what she did?

The performances are all very good, especially because they are very muted, and The End of the Affair, as a memory piece, only works insofar as it remains a work of cinema (light, texture, movement, focus) and not one of dramatic histrionics. Fiennes and Moore, two superlative actors, provide Jordan with exactly what he needs and nothing extraneous. Stephen Rea as Henry and Ian Hart as a private investigator are their equals in smaller, very touching roles. All of these performers offer the kind of acting that tends to be overlooked by awards groups because it is completely unshowy. One can feel, and never more than in the startling sex scenes, how much these actors must trust the man who is filming them, which only deepens the movie's astonishing intimacy and feeling.

Of course, this depth of emotion also means that when the project falls apart, as it so earnestly does, the shock is all the more grievous. The final third of The End of the Affair is not so much a disappointment as a defeat. It doesn't reveal too much to say that Sarah's erratic behavior has to do with her sudden embrace of a long-dormant religious zeal. Films about faith, as internal a phenomenon as it is, are among the hardest to make, and again, Pratt and Jordan start promisingly with a deep focus shot of Sarah first entering a church that is deeper in focus and more colorful than anything else in the movie: we see, we feel that she has just attained a new dimension of clarity. And yet, just when the film needs to reveal itself as a story of faith, it abandons Greene's novel, which is a terrible idea. The filmmakers, or perhaps their producers or the studio, decide that The End of the Affair should be a Great Tragic Weeper, an English Patient-style Academy-bait blockbuster, which would be fine if those ambitions weren't so utterly divorced from The End of the Affair's genuine themes and dimensions.

I'll offer this one detail as an emblem of how loused up Jordan's movie becomes: two characters in the novel, a minister and a radical skeptic who, in the novel, present diametrically opposed perspectives on Sarah's burgeoning faith, are condensed in the movie into the same character. A story about faith and religion cannot afford to treat a man of God and a renouncer of God as the same person, and because Sarah's entire character becomes subsumed by her spiritual ambivalence, nothing she does afterward makes any sense. As a result, the movie changes gears and gives us scenes like Bendrix and Sarah enjoying a mirthful day at a carnival. Her hat flies off her head, and they laugh, and The End of the Affair suddenly looks like every clichéd romance you've ever sat through. The point is not that the movie is different from the book, which is always, inevitably the case. The point is that the movie is different from itself, no longer about the things it was so patently, thrillingly about, and content to give Julianne Moore big crocodile-tear speeches from a deathbed. The movie's not thinking about God anymore, or sex, or memories, or filmmaking. It's thinking about Oscars, and the effects are miserable. The End of the Affair was award-worthy until the moment it started thinking about awards. B


Academy Award Nominations:
Best Actress: Julianne Moore
Best Cinematography: Roger Pratt

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Picture (Drama)
Best Director: Neil Jordan
Best Actress (Drama): Julianne Moore
Best Original Score: Michael Nyman

Other Awards:
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Adapted Screenplay

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