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The End of the Affair

Director: Neil Jordan
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Julianne Moore, Stephen Rea

(Columbia Tristar; 1999)

Break Ups to Make Ups

On its surface, Neil Jordan’s film of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair is about love. In particular, it appears to be about heterosexual love, or maybe the similarities and disjunctions between spiritual and physical manifestations of such love. As there would be in most any film based on Greene, there’s much talk here about God and faith and how you can know that love is real when you can’t see the object of your affection.


Maurice Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes) is the Greene-ish stand-in, a novelist and essayist in London who falls into deep and rather desperate love with another man’s wife, just as WWII commences in 1939. What with all the ardor flying and bombs dropping, it’s inevitable that several crises will mount. Though Maurice is clearly smitten and wants very much to give himself over to the passion he thinks he feels (he’s a writer, after all, and prides himself on having read a good deal as well), he’s incapable of such selflessness. In a word, Maurice is a bit stodgy. But seeing as he can’t admit that to himself, he blames his distrust on his supposed paramour, the lovely Sarah (Julianne Moore). The film actually begins several years after their affair has ended (hence the film’s title), but he’s still brooding and writing about his rage and raw emotional wound. The first words of his narration are, in fact, spoken as he pounds on his manual typewriter: “This is a diary of hate.”


Hateful as Maurice may be and dominant as his narration may seem, the film doesn’t remain fixed on his point of view: after a first half that shows the sudden break-up through Maurice’s eyes, the second retells the story of the breakup from Sarah’s perspective, revealing her reasons for telling Maurice that she can never see him again. In both versions, Maurice seems a tiresome fellow. Even when he’s supposedly in the throes of Eros, he’s doubting Sarah and pestering her to pledge her devotion. She, on the other hand, believes in their love with a near-religious fervor. In fact, as the film shows, her extraordinary capacity for belief is precisely what leads to the end of her affair with Maurice: during one of their wartime trysts, a bomb falls on their building and she sees him laid out and bloody, as if dead. She prays for a miracle, promising to “give him up” if he might live, and voila! he comes back to life. Thrilled and horrified at what her prayer has apparently effected, Sarah tells Maurice it’s over.


Back in the present, Maurice remains a hard nut, in part because he stands in constant comparison to the ever sweet Sarah. She appears at first as a kind of untouchable ideal (softly lit, perfectly appointed in styling forties suits and matching pumps), but soon reveals that she is also hungry for love and even occasionally lusty (as several heaving bosom shots suggest). Sarah does have reasons for her infidelity, namely, her husband Henry’s devotion to his career as a civil servant and general cold-fishness. As played by sad-eyed Stephen Rea (who also starred in Jordan’s overrated Crying Game and excellent Butcher Boy), Henry seems defeated by definition, bereft of sensuality and slightly dazed by the idea that his wife might want sex along with companionship.


The film doesn’t show much of their marriage, but it’s clear enough that they’ve developed a pattern over the years: she starts to pull out, either by active resistance or withdrawal, he pleads with her to stay, and she agrees, tearful and wonderful. Sarah, according to the film, is the devoted angel who keeps both her partners’ frail emotional selves intact, and whenever she even thinks about making a decision based on her own desires, one or both of the men becomes petulant or needy or downright demanding. The End of the Affair is, in this sense, focused on repeated ends of affairs, or more precisely, ends of promises and hopes. And Sarah’s at the center of all this roiling emotion, serving as the locus for the men’s guilt and frustrations. She never enjoys a stable moment, vacillating continually between Maurice and Henry as they seem constitutionally unable to trust her or themselves.


All this makes for a lot of wallowing, especially by Maurice, working on his diary. he’s inspired to take his grief further when one night — in the film’s present — while walking and moping in the rain, he accidentally runs into Henry, engaged in the same activity. Henry confesses that he believes Sarah is having an affair, and wishes to employ a detective to discover the details. Maurice convinces Henry to let him handle such uncouth business, and then becomes obsessed with monitoring the detective he hires, a fussbudgety and mostly efficient Mr. Parkis (Ian Hart).


Around the same time, Maurice himself approaches Sarah, ready to inflict as much pain as possible, but soon finds himself back in her arms, when — after her own diary reveals the truth behind her previous cruelty — she confesses her endless love for this self-centered little man. Henry acquiesces to the new arrangement, wanting only Sarah’s happiness, and soon the three are residing together in Henry and Sarah’s home. Henry’s generous response highlights his emotional and spiritual difference from Maurice, to be sure, but also sets up the movie’s next movement, which is basically grand melodrama, complete with the tragic death of one member of the threesome.


The End of the Affair, then, is structured as a series of overlapping and intersecting investigations and pursuits, of truth, love, and self-knowledge. While Sarah’s self-examination takes up much of the film’s emotional space (as a woman, she gets to cry and fret in more overt ways than the men, though she’s certainly no ham), it is the male characters who receive the full brunt of the movie’s inquiry into relationship anxieties. What makes this inquiry interesting is that it never assumes their possessiveness or prerogative. Instead, it examines their sense of entitlement and property, and questions Maurice’s belief that love must be manifest to be “real” — a belief that is, of course, hypocritical when he is engaged in the undercover affair with Sarah, though it would explain his determination to make the relationship legitimate, that is, visible to the world.


Perhaps appropriately, the film leaves unspoken what may be the most visible love relationship in the film, between the two men. While the men’s meetings to discuss Sarah’s “affair” suggest they share a common — if covetous — concern, and are arranged in the frame to underline their similar dispositions and creeds, later scenes — when the three are living together — expose their increasing intimacy, most often in visual compositions, as a backgrounded Sarah looks quite small between them or they appear together performing various domestic chores. The truth of Maurice and Henry’s relationship seems to be that they can only imagine it with a woman in the picture (to insure their heterosexuality), but at the same time, she’s the vehicle for their coming together.


This makes sense in a story that is, on its surface, about sacrifice and piety. For it seems that any of the film’s “affairs” must end, for they are all earthly, but such ends lead to the greater love and glory that Sarah envisions but consciously relinquishes when she reneges on her deal with God, to give up Maurice in exchange for his life. Sarah sees herself as “weak,” but she’s the very model of strength and conviction, according to her men. The trick is, the movie presents her as the means for Maurice and Henry to become their best selves, their angel and their light. As seems to be the fate of many women trying to make sense of organized religions, it’s not quite clear what she gets out of the bargain.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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