The End of the Affair

'The End of the Affair'

Maurice Bendrix, the hero of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, is one of modern literature’s great soreheads. This London novelist is so swept up by his wartime love affair with Sarah Miles, the wife of a government bureaucrat, that her sudden and unexplained termination of the romance devastates him.

Abandoning his art and unable to respond to other women, Bendrix becomes obsessed with the desire to hurt Sarah and wreck her marriage to the dull but needy Henry. Right after World War II, Henry’s divulgence that his wife may be having a second affair elates Bendrix because it finally provides both the reason for her withdrawal and a chance to enact his spite. But it turns out that Sarah’s latest "lover" is God, who apparently resurrected Bendrix during an air raid after Sarah promised to renounce the romance. This seeming or actual miracle has ignited Sarah’s latent spirituality and, even as her own physique deteriorates from pneumonia, she starts to display a saint’s ability to heal others. The atheistic Bendrix is completely discombobulated. How do you compete with a rival in whose existence you don’t believe? By the time Sarah dies, Bendrix has become a better and a worse man: He’s learned compassion for humanity in general and for Henry in particular, but he’s also emotionally depleted and can only pray, at the story’s close, to a deity in whom he now tentatively believes but certainly does not love, "O God, You’ve done enough, You’ve robbed me of enough. I’m too tired and old to learn to love. Leave me alone forever." Notice that Bendrix, a careful man with words, capitalizes the pronoun. The Hound of Heaven has caught up with this nonbeliever. And torn out his heart.

Neil Jordan, who has brought Greene’s novel to the screen, is much less ruthless than that divine dog; he only wants to pluck a few heartstrings. Perhaps Columbia Pictures was willing to finance it because, in outline, it sounds like Son of the English Patient. (Conference of the Suits: "Okay, what have we got here? Ralph Fiennes, adultery, World War II, British accents, and one hundred and ten minutes of guilty sex and emotional misery. Academy Awards, here we come!") In fact, this movie is better than The English Patient, richer in atmosphere, humor, characterization, and sheer storytelling. Even the love scenes are better: steamier yet also more tender. But the film, so true to the novel for most of its length, finally dissolves Graham Greene’s central premise and relieves Sarah of her theological dilemma. And without that dilemma, the story ultimately doesn’t make sense, and so it can’t be said that the movie even stands on its own merits.

But this film offers plenty of pleasure before that ultimate failure sets in. Jordan’s script cuts or combines plenty of incidents from the novel but, at least for the first three-quarters of the story, this is done not to defang the material but to give it dramatic vivacity and momentum. (The most sweeping cut, an entire subplot about an atheistic propagandist, eliminates a great deal of inadvertent smugness.) Again and again, I was gratified by how much of the book’s humor Jordan retained, such as the delicious moment when the detective Parkis, who makes his entire living tailing adulterers while cherishing his own middle-class respectability, learns that the name he gave his son, Lancelot, isn’t that of the knight who found the Holy Grail, as Parkis thought, but the knight discovered in Guinevere’s bed.

Occasionally, Jordan even improves on Greene. One instance: The book’s Sarah first attracts the hero because she’s read his novels and doesn’t gush over them. Nonsense! No writer ever, ever gets tired of praise. The film cuts this scene but retains the one where Bendrix takes Sarah to a bad movie made from a book of his that she’s never read, but she is able to separate the Bendrix wheat from the moviemakers’ chaff. Now that’s the way to get to a writer’s heart!

Ralph Fiennes, with his elegantly nasal voice and icy manner, can’t but capture Bendrix’s cultivated unlikability-his contempt for himself overflowing into contempt for others-but he also understands how such men can use the appeal of the handsome emotional cripple to awaken the sympathy of women. And when this Iago-with-a-conscience comes to the end of his tether, Fiennes knows how to awaken the audience’s sympathy as well.

Upon Julianne Moore’s first entrance I thought, "Oh no! She’s too wrapped up in her own beauty and elegance to reach the humanity of Sarah!" Within ten minutes I realized what Moore was trying to do. Sarah has to have the soigné manner Moore gives her so that it may be shattered by the love affair and its aftermath; the only trouble is the manner does not get shattered enough. This performance is too placid.

The part of the husband is a trap for actors. If its performer were to render Henry as dull as Greene indicates, the audience would be unable to stand him, but a too sympathetic account would make the adulterous couple insupportable. (This is exactly what happened in the Hollywood version of Madame Bovary.) Stephen Rea triumphs by portraying Henry as an overgrown schoolboy, the sort who has tea with the headmaster’s wife and wins all the prizes. The adult Henry may have continued winning those prizes (he is promised a knighthood for his government service) but has probably turned Sarah into a headmaster’s wife, not a recipe for a successful marriage to a passionate woman. And, as the hapless detective Parkis, Ian Hart delights with a just blending of prurience, sweetness, and tweedy respectability. The way his voice always hitches at the word "intimacy" is perfect.

Jordan and his cinematographer, Roger Pratt, splendidly realized the peculiar romance of damp, war-rationed London. If you’re a fan of Brief Encounter, you’ll love this aspect of Affair with its cozy and squalid tea shops and its endless rain, with its lovers kissing under the shelter of raincoats held overhead, with its drizzle-making patterns on window panes, with its showdown of lover and husband rubbing verbal salt into each other’s wounds while sharing an umbrella on a park bench during yet another downpour.

Having achieved cinematic flow, convincing characterizations, and wonderful atmosphere, Neil Jordan then proceeds to cut the heart out of his movie in its last twenty-five minutes by having Sarah renege on her promise to God. She resumes the affair, which is finally ended only by her death. Whatever the moral and theological implications of this, it is a dramatic, artistic mistake. The force of Sarah’s character, her fate (and that of the two men in her life), and the central irony and piteousness of the story, all flow from Sarah’s determination to keep her promise. Jordan dumps all this and opts instead for simple domestic pathos as husband and lover unite to nurse the dying woman they both love, later becoming a sort of poignant "odd couple" after her death.

I was touched but couldn’t help seeing that this made Sarah’s promise over Bendrix’s (seeming) corpse nothing but a temporary stumbling block to the affair and not, as Greene intended, a transformation of it into a crucible. Sarah is kin to Jean Anouilh’s Becket, a worldly creature who stumbles on transcendence but, once awakened, clings to her divine lover even as her heart yearns for the earthly one. This is precisely what gives the novel its cruel, creepy strength. But Neil Jordan’s Sarah is just another sensual, good-natured person-one of us, glamorized. The miracle Sarah performs in the book is a certification of her holiness. That miracle is in the movie, but there it seems nothing but a certification of a nice woman’s niceness.

There is an ambiguity in the final scenes of the movie that not only Greene never intended but that Jordan himself probably doesn’t want. To wit: Why does Sarah die in the end? In the book, her self-neglect leading to pneumonia seems the sort of unconscious suicide that a lot of saints have committed. But the movie’s Sarah dies of...well, I don’t know what the hell she dies of. Consumption? Too many walks in the rain? Or does God kill her because she didn’t make good on her promise to him? Is God a leg breaker for his own collection agency?

In a key scene of On the Waterfront, Marlon Brando furiously rounds on Eva Marie Saint for trying to get him to reform: "Will you quit with all that conscience stuff!" I have a notion of Neil Jordan pacing the floor of his study with a copy of The End of the Affair in hand. He thumbs through the first two-thirds, smiling at the rich characterizations, humane wit, and poignant eroticism, all of which he will turn to good cinematic account. Then he gets to the last chapters and all is suddenly not well. Jordan’s face darkens, he shrugs his shoulders and snorts in contempt once or twice. Finally, he throws the book to the carpet, shakes his fist at the heavens, and calls out to whatever cloud Graham Greene is floating on: "Will you quit with all that conscience stuff!"

Published in the 2000-01-28 issue: 
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Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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