In 1945, Britain gave us what is surely the most polite movie ever made about adultery—Brief Encounter, the tremulous Noel Coward weepie in which the spectacle of stiff upper lips kissing seemed to take all the guilty ill out of illicit. I thought of that film as I watched The End of the Affair, Neil Jordan’s scrupulously faithful adaptation of the 1951 Graham Greene novel, which is said by many to be his most autobiographical. It’s not that the movie is too refined (at times, it’s actually rather sexy), but that this luxuriously mounted World War II melodrama has so much more on its mind than the usual ripples of lust, ardor, and jealousy that describing it as a mere love story simply won’t do. How often, after all, do you get to see a tragic romantic triangle in which the principals are a man, a woman, and God?
The man is Maurice Bendrix, played with smoldering delicacy by Ralph Fiennes. He’s a prominent London fiction writer who, in the summer of 1939, falls into an all-consuming affair with Sarah Miles (Julianne Moore), a woman whose fiery nature matches his own, but who has the bad luck to be married to Henry (Stephen Rea), a dull-as-a-doorknob civil servant. The spectre of war has ripped everyone away from the comfort and solidity of their daily lives, but for Maurice and Sarah, the upheaval of the Blitz is pure liberation. They make love, week after week, with the ground quaking beneath them as bombs thunder in the background. ”There were nights,” says Maurice, ”I wished the sirens would never end.” Somehow, the wall-shaking destruction completes their passion. It says that nothing matters—nothing exists—but them.
The movie cuts back and forth between the couple’s furtive, idyllic meetings and their tentative reunion several years later, after they’ve broken off their relationship. Maurice’s thwarted desire is newly ignited by a chance encounter, in the middle of a nighttime rainstorm, with Henry, who, irony of ironies, engages him to investigate Sarah (whom he now suspects of infidelity). Maurice, still drowning in misery, has reasons of his own for agreeing: At this point, he’s even more jealous than Henry is. But why, exactly, did the affair end in the first place? That’s the movie’s pivotal mystery, and without giving it away, let me just say that Sarah, facing a critical moment of life and death, replaces one form of adoration with another. In the space of a single, devastating bomb blast, she moves from selfishness to faith, allowing her earthly bliss to die as the ultimate act of love.
As the season’s official literary romantic sob story, The End of the Affair will inevitably be compared to The English Patient, but Fiennes balances torment and shining-eyed yearning with less of the masochistic dourness that weighed him down in that top-heavy art mosaic. Moore, with her melancholy maternal softness, has a piercing and tragic presence. For all that, the movie, as handsomely shot and beautifully acted as it is, begins to grow remote just when it should be haunting us with its civilized passion. Jordan works in a tasteful and seductive middlebrow style, but it’s almost too conventional a mode to support the film’s central, sleight-of-hand religious twist. Inevitably, Greene’s gilded Catholic anguish, with its mystical underpinnings, feels more stagy and contrived on screen than it did on the page. (For the rare man/woman/God triangle that’s as transporting as it is far-fetched, watch Breaking the Waves.) The affair itself, in its genteel way, does catch fire, but it’s the end of the affair that needs to move us to rapture, and the movie, instead, just drifts away. B