"Hell is a sort of high-class nightclub," wrote George Orwell, "entry to which is reserved for Catholics only." This sentiment is on stark display in the work of novelist Graham Greene, whose adulterous relationship (with the very married Catherine Walston, a wealthy farmer's wife) propelled him to scrutinize the mechanics of desire and betrayal. By transforming his own pain and confusion into prose, Greene created a seminal and defining novel about the joys -- and woes -- of infidelity. Not particularly unique subject matter these days, but in 1951 it made quite a splash. And it has endured.
Director Neil Jordan, who has steadily carved himself a niche by creating mainstream movies laden with decidedly nonmainstream ideas (The Crying Game, The Butcher Boy), has taken on the task of adapting Greene's work, delivering a new and somewhat tinkered-with take on The End of the Affair. Evolving his vision beyond the classic Edward Dmytryk adaptation from 1955 (with the wonderful Deborah Kerr), Jordan has crafted his movie to encompass the loosely autobiographical novel while incorporating additional elements from Greene's own life, most notably in new scenes written for Greene's beloved Brighton. The result is at once a mostly faithful rethinking of the novel as well as a portrait of the artist as a young adulterer.
The tale takes place primarily in London during and shortly after World War II. "This is a diary of hate," begins Maurice Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes), a frustrated novelist tapping out his feelings on his typewriter. The narrative he is about to unfold -- and which is due, with dire consequences, to unfold about him -- flashes forward and back to reveal his own shifting perceptions, as well as those of his lover, Sarah Miles (Julianne Moore) and her stodgy but dependable husband, Henry (Stephen Rea). Henry, it seems, is just not delivering the goods Sarah needs to feel alive, and, despite his unwavering dedication, she steps out (or simply stays home) for intense trysts with Maurice.
"Their marriage was conventional," Maurice taps on, "and I liked them both the day we met, drinking bad South African sherry because of the war in Spain." Once it is established that busy civil servant Henry is swiftly losing his wife's affection (which he's hardly been diligently cultivating -- "My husband prefers habit to happiness," Sarah flatly states) to emotionally charged Maurice, the narrative slips quickly into gear, spanning the entire war and revealing the vast dilemmas created by lust, jealousy, obsession and Fiennes' thrusting buttocks.
The most intriguing hook about all this is that Sarah remains dedicated to her husband in all but the flesh, which drives Maurice to experience fierce pangs of rage and regret. Because Henry is so cool about being cuckolded -- treating the entire affair like a minor peccadillo rather than a clarion call to violence -- Maurice tries to coax his friend to have Sarah followed by private investigator Mr. Parkis (Ian Hart, young John Lennon in Backbeat). Parkis and his son twice tail Sarah around London and Brighton, spanning the years, encountering persnickety priest Father Smythe (Jason Isaacs) and exhuming a secret she has buried, a secret that indeed provokes the end of the affair.
Although his is basically a supporting role, Jordan regular Rea is in fine form here as Henry, making much of a challenging character. Because Henry is so detached from his passions -- he is carried almost to the point of caricature, the limp but devoted husband -- Rea has to work extra hard to keep Henry interesting. In the wrong hands, he would play simply as a dishrag. It's a credit to Rea, a fine and adventurous actor, that Henry seems so terribly strange and chilly yet utterly human.
Moore has less to work with, oddly enough. Her Sarah, with a vacillating accent, slips in and out of love with grace and mounting responsibility, but the material is not substantive enough to reveal all a viewer might wish to know about her. Why is she drawn to Maurice? Why does she remain with Henry? Indeed, what does she do and who is she?
It's really Fiennes' movie; most of the first half is told from Maurice's limited perspective. Fiennes is a focused actor but not a particularly versatile one, and here his narrow spectrum becomes almost obnoxiously evident. Part of this may be due to Maurice's shallow, jealous rutting as an angry young man, but it's also revealing that this character is sort of a wispy version of Fiennes' own turn in The English Patient. Millions may swoon at the sight of the actor with a bloody pate (London was being bombed, remember), mooning over the burden of his incredible desire, but here he seems a bit like an English Andrew McCarthy, eyes wide and craving attention. Not the suavest thing he's done.
All in all, The End of the Affair is satisfying in its setup and execution, and the Catholic guilt streaked through its dank, rainy atmosphere serves it well. Nonetheless, the story's subtleties in this version are often outweighed by melodrama, sometimes verging on sap. Jordan has made another heartfelt, thoughtful movie, but the despair and ugliness of love deserve a fuller assessment than his vision provides.
Opens Jan. 21 at the Plaza Frontenac and Tivoli.