Critical Writings -> Academic Journals -> Newpaper Articles & Reviews > Film

Articles and Reviews: FILM

The End of The Affair

Written and Directed by Neil Jordan.

Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Julianne Moore, Stephen Rea, Ian Hart.

Ah yes, Catholics and sex. If, in this country, where the majority of us were brought up in the One True Faith, we had until relatively recently our very own peculiar spin on the powerful nexus where religious and sexual longings meet - or fail to meet - consider the even more bizarre case of that strange breed, the beleaguered minority that were English Catholics, when it came to John Thomas and rumpy-pumpy. These people were aristocrats, or else a pathetic, watered-down, suburban version of our own supremely self-confident triumphalism. They were Catholics in drag. I say, dash it all Jeeves, they may as well have been Protestants.




The reputation of Graham Greene, upon one of whose novels Neil Jordan’s new film is based, is currently problematic. Many of us who were callow, questioning adolescents up to and including the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, on expressing some mild doubt about whether or not this church-going business really stood up to close scrutiny, or indeed came right out with the opinion that the whole religion thing was a dreadful load of old tosh, will remember being kindly directed by our more sympathetic, liberal-leaning, consistently wise elders and betters, to ‘read Graham Greene’.
Today, much of his work seems impossibly hammy. ‘Police-chiefs quote Pascal. Priests hit the bottle/Strong men repent in Nnizhny-Novgorod.’ as James Fenton and John Fuller’s ‘Poem Against Catholics’ has it. And who is there around now to carry his flag in that green and pleasant land as an educated, literary, worldly Catholic? David Lodge? Paul Johnson? Quite. “His words don’t dance on the page,” as Anthony Burgess had it. Anyone who has read John Banville’s The Untouchable will appreciate the comprehensive Greene hatchet job in the character of Querell, leaving aside what motivated it. Too many of these converts turn out to be perverts.
Something of a similar dilemma occurs with some of the work of our own John McGahern. Amongst Women sails so close to wind in its searing honesty that it hovers between being both unbearably moving and difficult to take seriously, since it would be so easy to rewrite as satire or parody. What would have happened if one of the monstrous Moran’s children had tweaked him on the nose and told him where to go? In a post-Father Ted, one-tribunal-after-another world, where so many traditional repositories of authority are exposed to gentle mockery or open derision, there has been a radical shift in sensibility, to put it mildly. We are obliged to make a certain leap of faith, as it were, to imagine where we stood, and how things used to stand.
Oh yes, sorry, the movie. Sarah Miles (Moore) is a passionate woman trapped in a sterile marriage with worthy but unexciting civil servant Henry (Rea). She is immediately and irresistibly attracted to brooding novelist Maurice Bendrix (Fiennes) when they meet at a party given by Henry. And, they are lapsed English Catholics.
They begin their illicit, sexually liberating love affair, but during the London Blitz Bendrix’s house is hit by a V 1 rocket while the couple are in flagrante delicto, and he is nearly killed. During the couple of minutes when she doesn’t know if he’ll live or die, Sarah prays ‘to whatever might exist’, offering a deal: ‘Let him be alive and I’ll give him up’. Bendrix walks through the door, and inexplicably and without warning, she breaks off the relationship. He is utterly bereft.
Two years later, Bendrix has a chance meeting with Henry, and his obsession with Sarah is rekindled. He succumbs to his jealousy and arranges to have her followed. Haunted by passionate memories of their affair, he re-enters her life, confronting the consuming love they shared. In a denouement in Brighton, he eventually learns the reason for its suspension.
The character of Sarah, Jordan has said, required an actress who could bring to life, ‘The kind of person who had led quite an overtly sexual life, but is suddenly committed to this love and this relationship that is bigger than anything she could ever deal with.’ Julianne Moore is more than up to the task. One does envy the Catholic ethos though, if only in terms of the extra erotic charge it gave when people were ‘being bold’. There was a time when the thought of having a sexually confident, upper class, spiritually striving woman who was also, for good measure, another man’s wife, must have lent many a man a smile on his face he could feel in his hip pocket. This stands in stark contrast to the bored, affectless, seen-it-all, looking-for-new-thrill sexuality of, say, Ballard/Cronenberg’s Crash. Post-feminist, we are no longer encouraged to read obsessive jealousy as an index of the depth of true love. The End of The Affair suffers a little from the flaw which beset Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (a film his wife apparently forbade him to make twenty years ago, when it would have meant a lot more): the idea of ‘sinning in the heart’, or indeed, in the flesh, is about as relevant today as that of courtly love or, ahem, perpetual indulgences. Still, Sarah’s moral dilemma is not just that she cannot keep her marriage vows, but that she cannot keep away from Maurice, having vowed to, in exchange for his life.
So, should you go and see it? In a word, yes. The central performances are excellent, especially the versatile Moore, and Ian Hart does a beautifully judged turn as the slow-on-the-uptake, punctilious, private dick who is the vehicle for most of the dark, dry humour. Some of the scenes between Fiennes and Rea verge into (unintentional?) Pythonesque high comedy, with an Irish actor doing an over-the-top rendition of the tight-assed, buttoned-down, stiff- upper- lip English public schoolboy, opposite the typecast living incarnation of this stereotype. (Think Woody Allen opposite Tony Roberts in Play It Again Sam, manfully controlling their emotions over Diane Keaton.) But it’s still a good story, if a tad period-piecey, providing a charming record of a time when people took the notion of keeping their promises seriously. But perhaps some people still try to keep their promises, if for rather different reasons than they used to. And, despite the tone of much of this review, while God may be dead, there are still many millions around the world who have not yet heard the Good News. Besides, once a Catholic, as they say...

First published in Film Ireland









Critical Writings
Travel Writings