End of the Affair (1999): Neil Jordan’s Version of Graham Greene’s Novel, Starring Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore in Oscar-Nominated Turn

Fans of British writer Graham Greene’s densely textured, morally ambiguous and ironic novels will relish Neil Jordan’s brilliant version of The End of the Affair, Greene’s most complex, most autobiographical, and arguably finest novel, previously brought to the screen by Edward Dmytryk in a severely flawed production in 1955.

A faithful adaptation that captures the haunting spirit and religious nature of the 1951 novel, this erotic ghost story unfolds as a first-person account of the warped liaison between a selfish novelist and the adulterous wife of a civil servant, splendidly played by Ralph Fiennes, Julianne Moore, and Stephen Rea, respectively. Strong critical support will be crucial for broadening the appeal of this ultra-romantic period drama that, while a better film than The English Patient, lacks the epic scale and, yes, campy elements that made Anthony Minghella’s Oscar-winner such a B.O. hit.

With twelve movies to his credit, Jordan proves again that he is a supreme storyteller of complex human dramas, be they based on original scripts (The Crying Game) or literary adaptations (The Butcher Boy). In sharp opposition to other Hollywood writer-directors, it’s hard to separate Jordan the scripter from Jordan the filmmaker, for his best films (The Miracle) are informed by an alert intelligence that can transform a uniquely British historical romance, such as End of the Affair, into a highly cinematic, truly modern and universal experience.

A personal novel, inspired by Greene’s illicit affair with American Catherine Walston (who was married to a wealthy farmer), End of the Affair is subtler and more sympathetic in treating religious themes than his other spiritual novels (The Heart of the Matter). Greene’s briefest novel (192 pages in the current Penguin edition) also represents a change in his narrative strategy, telling the same events from multiple perspectives and punctuating the drama by an authorial voice that shifts from character to character, providing threads of an intriguing puzzle that viewers can fit into a coherent whole.

The film operates successfully on many levels: As a painful deconstruction of a tragic love affair, a mystical thriller with unorthodox twists and turns and a big secret in the middle (recalling, albeit in a different way, the secret at the center of The Crying Game), and as an undeniably religious drama about sin and redemption. Rather ingeniously, End of the Affair also impresses as a reflexive meditation on the very act of writing: Greater success has eluded the novelist- protagonist because, as he comes to understand, he has been “too finished and slick.” In the past, Bendrix exercised such control over his characters that they had no life of their own, whereas now he starts a story that threatens to progress on its own terms.

On the surface, the three individuals whose lives get fatefully entangled represent stereotypical characters in a noir melodrama of the 40s, which is the movie’s time frame. A passionate woman trapped in a sterile marriage, Sarah Miles (Moore) falls for Maurice Bendrix (Fiennes), a young, handsome novelist, upon meeting him at a party given by her loyal but unexciting civil servant husband, Henry (Rea). They begin an illicit, sexually liberating affair that lasts several years. One of their steamy rendez-vous occurs during the 1944 Blitz, when a bomb hits Bendrix’s house and he is severely injured. Thinking he is dead, Sarah prays to God to save his life and shortly thereafter inexplicably and without any signal breaks off their relationship.

Following the novel’s multi-layered, fractured nature, the film begins in 1949, with the utterly bereft Bendrix at his typewriter, trying to understand what went wrong. “This is a diary of hate,” Bendrix states in his first-person narration. What ensues is a subtle, extremely moving chronicle of the end of Bendrix’s affair with Sarah, jumping back and forth between the summer of 1939, when they first met, to Sarah’s sudden death, seven years later.

On a rainy night in 1946, two years after the affair ended, Bendrix has a chance encounter with Henry. The depressed husband confides in Bendrix his suspicion that Sarah is having an extramarital affair. Bendrix’s obsession with Sarah is rekindled and, succumbing to his jealousy, he arranges to have her followed by detective Parkis (Ian Hart) and his apprentice son, Lance (Samuel Bould).

Haunted by passionate memories of their affair, which form the bulk of the movie, Bendrix renters Sarah’s life, confronting once more the all-consuming love they had for each other. Soon, the loyal husband and jealous lover form a most peculiar and intimate bond, contributing to what’s one of the most sophisticated and mature triangles ever put on screen, including such landmark French variations of amour fou as Truffaut’s Jules et Jim and The Woman Next Door, among others.

In his adaptation, Jordan has omitted a number of characters, such as Sarah’s mother (depicted as a maudlin grifter), created new episodes, such as the lovers’ blissful trip to Brighton, and transposed attributes from one character to another: In the novel, the detective’s son suffers from stomach pains, and it’s Father Smythe’s face that’s blemished. With meticulous attention to detail, Jordan depicts cocktail-party chitchats and fumbling man-to-man conversations. In a truly Hitchcockian manner, he implicates the audiences in a voyeuristic position as they listen to not-to-be-heard muttering and not-to-be seen steamy sex between lovers.

What’s extremely gratifying about the film is that Bendrix the narrator is involved in telling his story as he experiences it. Eschewing conventional techniques, Bendrix follows the track of his feelings and unravels a mystery through his subjective recollections as well as reading excerpts from Sarah’s journal, found by detective Parks. Using the journal as a device allows Jordan to give Sarah’s her own voice and to present the events from her singular P.O.V. As Bendrix experiences a traumatic crisis, Sarah undergoes a dramatic transformation from a stereotypically unfulfilled housewife to a holy person with healing powers. The film’s spiritual message becomes most explicit at the end, when the agnostic and egotistical Bendrix is forced to acknowledge the existence of God and the power of magic.

As would be expected from a Jordan film, technical credits are striking, most notably Roger Pratt’s carefully modulated lensing that features the era’s colors, Anthony Pratt’s authentic production design that’s packed with fascinating details, and Sandy Powell’s accurately alluring period costumes.

In what may be his most accomplished screen performance to date, Fiennes shines as the disenchanted, skeptical and hate-ridden novelist, who gropes his way toward faith and deeper comprehension of the meaning of love. As the only American in the cast, Moore also excels in revealing the depths of emotions of a woman who, after her mystical union with God, is blessed with miraculous powers, both physical and spiritual. A regular in Jordan’s films, Rea plays the civil servant in a dignified manner that defies stereotypical cliches in portraying a cuckolded husband. Rest of the ensemble is equally good, especially Hart, as the private eye, and Isaacs, as the Rationalist Father and Sarah’s confidante.

The End of the Affair is arguably the finest screen adaptation of a Graham Greene novel since Carol Reed’s seminal films, The Fallen Idol and The Third Man.

Oscar Alert

Julianne Moore was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar.