The End of the Affair (1999)

Julianne Moore and Ralph Fiennes in a doomed romance in The End of the Affair

Director: Neil Jordan

Cast: Ralph Fiennes (Maurice Bendrix), Julianne Moore (Sarah Miles), Stephen Rea (Henry Miles), Ian Hart (Mr Parkis), Jason Isaacs (Father Richard Smythe), James Bolam (Mr Savage), Sam Bould (Lance Parks), Deborah Findlay (Miss Smythe)

The End of the Affair is one of Graham Greene’s most autobiographical novels, based strongly on his relationship with Catherine Walston, wife of a friend in the civil service. Unlike the affair in the book, Greene’s continued for decades, long after the publication of the novel in 1951 (which had led to the husband demanding an end to it – a demand ignored). Greene’s novel recounts the dangerous passions of an affair, mixed with the powerful anxieties and uncertainties that the Catholic faith can have on relationships. Jordan’s film captures much of this – but in places fails to fully understand the spirit of Greene’s compelling novel.

Maurice Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes) is a moderately successful popular author, excused war service due to having injured his leg in the Spanish Civil War. In 1946, a chance meeting with Henry Miles (Stephen Rea), a staid civil servant brings back vivid memories of Maurice’s wartime affair with Henry’s wife Sarah (Julianne Moore). The affair ended abruptly for reasons Maurice cannot understand, and his love is twisting into jealous resentment. With Henry now concerned Sarah is having an affair – and seemingly unaware of Maurice and Sarah’s wartime relationship – Maurice takes it upon himself to hire Parkis (Ian Hart) a private investigator to find out more. The results though give him profound and affecting insights into both the present and the reasons for the end of his own affair with Sarah.

Jordan’s adaptation gets so much right, it’s almost more of a shame that it gets things wrong as well. The atmosphere of the film is simply perfect. It looks and feels exactly like a classic slice of Greeneland, with its dreary London, rain-soaked settings and gloomy period setting. Roger Pratt’s Oscar nominated photography is perfect for the tragic beauty of Greene’s work, and its matched with a sublime musical score from Michael Nyman that wrings every inch of emotion from the story.

Ralph Fiennes is also the perfect idea of a Greene hero – slightly imperious, bitter, arrogant with an air of prep school smugness mixed with an underlying sense of grim inferiority. It’s hard to imagine any other actor – maybe except Colin Firth – better suited to the slight air of dissolute, not obviously sympathetic world-weary struggle that a Greenian hero needs to exhibit. Fiennes barely puts a foot wrong and could have practically walked off the page.

Equally good is Julianne Moore, who nails a very English type of person, a woman determined to do her best and to set standards, but who carries just below the surface a deep well of emotional pain and sorrow that briefly is allowed to peek through. It’s a heart-rending performance of a person desperate for happiness, but hiding that longing under a veneer of acceptability, who sacrifices what she wants from life to meet the obligations of her faith. 

Because, it being Graham Greene, Faith is the big issue here – the idea of the private deals we make with God and the cost that those impose on us, the sacrifices of our own happiness in surface of something higher than ourselves. Greene’s novel intrinsically understand the eternal struggle felt in Catholicism to do the right thing, to accept the love of God into your life even if it means turning your back on more earthly loves and passions. How these journeys can be hard – unbearable even – but carry a level of reward in themselves. 

It’s that feeling for God – who Bendrix grows to believe has cheated him from happiness on earth – that powers his “diary of hate” that he is writing as the book opens. It’s an idea the film only fitfully engages with. Jordan deviates from the novel’s real intention at a key point, in particular “correcting” a dramatic error he feels Greene makes by having Sarah die “off camera” in the book, of a sudden cold, after confessing to Bendrix her reasons for ending the affair, her pact with God.

This narrative change allows a sequence in Brighton as the two reignite their affair – but it also undermines the tragedy of the book, that suddenness of loss, and also makes Sarah’s death feel like a tit-for-tat punishment for going back on her word. More to the point, the affair restarting has the air of an atheistic view of the Catholic complications here, an idea that these can be easily brushed aside because the “heart wants”. It’s to miss the point of Greene’s world thinking and undermine the small everyday tragedy in favour of something more conventional and “epic”.

It’s a major tweak that undermines the strength (otherwise) of Jordan’s work here – his directing and scripting is otherwise largely faultless. Other changes to the source clarify the message – I think changing Smythe (a gently but arrogantly certain Jason Isaacs) into a priest rather than an atheist Sarah is using to test her faith makes sense, even if it does suggest that she acts under the influence of someone else rather than on her own opinions. Making Bendrix a Spanish war veteran rather someone suffering the effects of a childhood illness adds a political and moral romanticism to the character entirely absent from any of the rest of his personality. But it’s fine.

Jordan’s film has many strengths. Its tone is excellent and it’s passion inspiring (the tender explicitness of the sex scenes landed it with a bizarre and controversial 18 certificate) and there are superb performances, not just the leads but Stephen Rea excellent as the meek but noble husband and some lovely comic work from Ian Hart as a haplessly efficient private eye. But the film slightly misses, in the end, the point of the novel – which is a real shame. If Jordan had stuck to the book, and its complex themes of guilt and grief and Catholicism we could have really had something here.

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