[This review was first published at the original Looking Closer website in 1999.]
The End of the Affair takes us back to London in wartime. There, we’re told a story in which the echoes of air raid bombings leave scars on history and hearts.
At first, it might sound like the tale of a simple love triangle: The wealthy and beautiful Sarah Miles (Julianne Moore) betrays her boring husband Henry (Stephen Rea) and begins a passionate affair with an obnoxious novelist named Maurice Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes). But then, a most unlikely fourth party becomes involved… none other than the Almighty himself.
This turbulent story finds its epicenter in a key moment when the war collides with the lovers during a secret rendezvous. A sudden and dramatic turn leaves Maurice in grave distress, and Sarah turns to God for help. It’s the film’s most profound and vivid scene… she kneels so that we only see her clasped hands, and she makes a desperate bargain with God.
And God answers.
If God were to grant you a request as directly as He does for Sarah here, it would be difficult for you to shake your newfound assurance of His presence. The End of the Affair gets its title from the fact that it changes Sarah tremendously. But the biggest flaw in Neil Jordan’s movie is that it strays from Graham Greene’s novel and lets the affair in question continue after this point, whereas in the book this event truly marks “the end of the affair.”
In the novel, Sarah is changed forever. In the film, she is far more fickle; although she remains aware of God, she continues to behave in a way that is displeasing to Him.
What is strange about this movie adaptation of The End of the Affair is just how far director Neil Jordan went to alter the last chapters of the story. (I owe thanks to Peter T. Chattaway for sending me excerpts from the novel demonstrating this divergence; I haven’t read the entire novel for myself.) I cannot go into great detail about the changes without spoiling what surprises the film has for you, but I will say that what might have been a story about the long hard but rewarding road of virtue becomes in the film a confusing and contradictory muddle of broken promises, lies, prayers, attempted corrections to behavior, and then backslidings.
The film wants to make grand statements about something, but about what is unclear.
Are we supposed to hope Sarah stays true to God, or to Maurice? Or do we hope her husband has a change of heart and tries to reinvigorate their marriage? Neil Jordan seems to be primarily interested in having excuses to put the two lovers in bed for long athletic bouts of sex. And yet, even there the characters are joyless, acting rebelliously as though proving a point rather than proving their love.
Jordan’s approach betrays what might have been a powerful story.
Maurice Bendrix is clearly a villainous man; he cheats, he lies, and his obsession is so intense that he shows little care for Sarah’s troubles or questions. He drives her to yet another failing that fills her with guilt before God.
Julianne Moore’s performance is very strong as a woman at war with herself, torn between loyalty to God and desire for her lover. She makes Sarah seem courageous to deny her lust and turn away from the affair. But Jordan’s revisions rob her of this nobility in the end, making her fickle and celebrating her compromises. She is left weeping in a church telling God that she just can’t keep her promises. Later, when her “goodness” brings about an honest-to-goodness miracle, it’s hard to understand, since she’s already given up on virtue. In the novel, it must make more sense… she remains true to God in spite of hardship, and her sacrifice prompts a miracle and hardens her angry lover’s heart against a God in whom he claimed never to believe.
What a sad and melancholy piece of work. The marvelous Stephen Rea as Henry is allowed only to mope and feel sorry for himself. His monotone monologues make him a prime candidate for a Prozac prescription; at least he’d be a more cheerful weakling. As Maurice, Ralph Fiennes basically reprises his English Patient role as the heroic destroyer of covenants and promises. He gives Maurice a prominent forehead that seems to emphasize his bone-headedness. He’s supposed to be a good novelist, but his romantic overtures sound like the work of a smitten freshman doing homework for Poetry 101. And the affair itself, like that at the center of The English Patient, seems more foolish than tragic, because all that binds these two characters is carnal desire.
To make matters worse, what I suspect will be remembered as Michael Nyman’s most overbearing soundtrack works hard to lend pathos and tragic heroism to the lovers’ dalliances. The backdrop of relentless rain makes the proceedings more dour, and the cinematography shows us a grim and un-romantic London.
In fact, the only scenes that carry any laughter or lightness are those that feature a private detective named Parkis. Employed by Henry and Maurice to discover Who has stolen Sarah’s heart, Parkis tries to relate his discoveries to his employer. Ian Hart (Backbeat) plays Parkis perfectly. He’s a nervous wreck, so scared of his own need for love that he uses detective work as an excuse for voyeurism. Parkis is a prisoner of British manners who can’t just say “I found her crying…” but instead stammers “Tears were an issue.” I found myself wishing for another movie in which Parkis was the main character, living out a comically miserable existence running errands for these selfish and sour lowlives.
It seems Neil Jordan, who in interviews has talked in a detached way about God being the greatest “invention” humans have created, exhibits a hard heart toward God and religion in this film. This is disappointing. Jordan has told such powerful stories of compassion and forgiveness in his finest works, The Crying Game and The Butcher Boy. In the novel, it seems Graham Greene is wrestling with his own personal experience and the guilt of having been unfaithful (the book is said to be based on his own wartime affair.) In the film, the perspective seems very much that of Maurice, who sometimes refuses to believe in God, while at other times lashing out at God as a scheming entity who robs us of our desires.
Any honest believers will admit that they suffer lapses, or at least challenges to, their faith. All of us get angry with God from time to time when things don’t go our way. But this is evidence of weakness, of selfishness. This is the state of the child angry at his parents because he wants to be the center of the universe, and in fact, he isn’t. This is not a state to be championed, glamorized, or celebrated. It does not make heroes out of men. And I don’t feel sorry for Maurice or for Henry, as the film wants me to, when they don’t get what they want.
The End of the Affair leaves me wishing that Maurice and Henry… and Neil Jordan, perhaps… discover the rewards of a “giving” kind of love, rather than stewing over what they didn’t “get” out of self-serving obsession.