Baby, the Rain Must Fall
If Neil Jordan's new film, The End of the Affair, is to be trusted, it stops raining in London only long enough to drizzle. Through the 100-odd minutes of Jordan's adaptation of the 1951 Graham Greene novel, the weather varies only in shades of wet, from the dismal downpour of the opening scenes, hanging heavy in the branches of a deserted public garden, to frozen drops tapping nervously at the eaves of a bleak Edwardian mansion. The vaporous chill also seems to work its way beneath the skin of Jordan's players. Ralph Fiennes, as the brooding novelist Maurice Bendrix, spends a great deal of time maneuvering an umbrella to protect his perfectly arranged hair. Bendrix's acquaintance and the cuckolded husband of his lover, played by Stephen Rea, gives up trying to keep dry, and ends up soaked and shaking like an alley cat. Only Julianne Moore, as Bendrix's mistress, manages to hold off the chill. And by film's end, she, too, is drenched.
The gloom is pervasive enough. Yet Jordan (The Crying Game, The Butcher Boy), who has always seemed at his most assured in the rain, knows how to put bad weather to good effect. His blitz-era London is a dreary and ash-gray wasteland, filmed as though through a wall of frost. Even the spare patches of blue sky, allusions to better times, have a steely coldness to them. In its evocation of a world going indecorously to rot, the film's setting rivals the postwar Vienna of Carol Reed's The Third Man (widely regarded as the exemplar screen treatment of a Graham Greene plot). As in Crying Game and Butcher Boy, however, Jordan demonstrates that his true métier lies not in muted atmospherics but in the serpentine twists of a well-told mystery. As such, Greene's tale of star-crossed love, with its furtive secrets and ironic reversals, proves a remarkably satisfying match for the director's sensibilities. The result is a film of glacial beauty, lacking perhaps in human warmth, but profoundly sympathetic to human weakness.
It doesn't hurt, of course, that Ralph Fiennes is a ready-made Graham Greene leading man (he is no hero, and Greene would not have made him so). With his translucent eyes, and mouth pinched slightly at the corners--a sneer turned inward--Fiennes has the unstudied sang-froid of a matinee idol. When he is ill-used, he can become remote and wooden as a chunk of fine furniture. When, as in The English Patient, Fiennes is given room to brood, his features hint at some deep and terrible capacity for cruelty held inert behind a wrinkle-free façade. In these moments there is no better, or more dangerous, actor to watch. The End of the Affair is Fiennes's movie, and he is given every opportunity to be devastating.
As Bendrix, Fiennes is first seen hunched over a typewriter, tapping out his own opening lines: "This is a diary of hate." From that ominous preface, Bendrix flashes back a few years to a chance encounter with Henry (Rea). The two men adjourn to an upstairs room in Henry's house to get out of the rain, and Henry makes a confession: He suspects his wife Sarah (Moore) of carrying on an affair. Though Henry is a successful bureaucrat, he is also something of a sodden lump--the sort who responds to his wife's infidelity by poking morosely at the dying embers in the fireplace. Bendrix, playing at compassion, suggests that he hire a private detective (a fastidious clown named Parkis, given just the right dash of dignity by Ian Hart). In a flurry of elliptical flashbacks, narrated by Bendrix, the film begins to unravel the tangle of emotion that brought Bendrix and Sarah together years before. Their affair ended abruptly, we learn, and Bendrix is now in the odd position of solidarity with his mistress's jealous husband. He, too, suspects another man. As it is, though, the other man turns out not to be a man at all. This is no Crying Game, mind you, although to say more about the trois in this ménage would be to spoil Greene's mystery.
The End of the Affair is often taken as Greene's public confession of his own extramarital aerobics with the American Catherine Walston (who, in turn, is often mistakenly credited with introducing the author to Catholicism). While it is certainly more intimate in tone than Greene's other work, however, The End of the Affair also recycles many of the novelist's most beloved literary motifs (Bendrix and Henry are recognizable reflections of Pyle and the narrator in The Quiet American). So, too, the woman in the middle is reduced to a symbolic vehicle for man's damnation or salvation. Sarah, pressed into service as both virgin and whore, sacrifices her happiness and sexual liberty for Bendrix. Meanwhile, Bendrix, one of the breed of disenchanted agnostics populating Greene's writing, thinks himself into an ontological double bind: Even to hate God is to accede the existence of God.
Thankfully, Jordan is far too intelligent an adapter to get bogged down by either Greene's or Bendrix's theological warbling. Liberally shuffling Greene's narrative, and reinventing Sarah as a body of flesh-and-spirit rather than an embodiment of the carnal and the spiritual, Jordan emerges with an entirely original notion: that matters of faith are, at least in part, also matters of perspective. The complexity of his vision is revealed in a single scene, played from the perspective of both Bendrix and Sarah, in which the two lovers stand at the top of a staircase, framed in pale sunlight slanting in from a nearby window. Their eyes meet, and for a moment the walls seem to press in around them. Then a bomb explodes outside, and glass and brick splinter everywhere. Bendrix is thrown from the stairs and tumbles into the chaos below. The first time we see the scene, it is a tragic accident. When we watch the same through Sarah's eyes, however, it is a miracle of transfiguration. Such, suggests The End of the Affair, are the small mysteries upon which both faith and love must feed in order to survive.
The End of the Affair starts Friday at area theaters.
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