Who would have thought Graham Greene’s “The End of the Affair” would make a terrific film? There is no accounting for why some books make great movies and others do not. How can it be that the novels of Elmore Leonard, so vivid and streamlined, so full of quotable dialogue that they seem practically camera-ready, have, with a few exceptions, been turned into one big-screen dud after another? On the other hand, who would have thought that Graham Greene’s dark and vexing 1951 novel “The End of the Affair” would make a terrific film? I don’t mean the 1955 version, which starred an almost comically miscast Van Johnson and a surprisingly wooden Deborah Kerr. Greene, who was a lifelong movie addict and even wrote film criticism for a while, had problems with that one. But it’s hard to imagine him not admiring the 1999 remake, written and directed by Neil Jordan, who occasionally seems to grasp Greene’s intentions better than Greene did.
That “The End of the Affair” is written in the first person, has a chronology that flashes forward and back, and partly consists of excerpts from a character’s journal is only the start of the obstacles it poses. Greene wrote the book during his most intensely Roman Catholic period, and it’s a story of a wartime love triangle with a theological dimension. During the Blitz, Maurice Bendrix, a novelist, falls in love with the married Sarah Miles, and when she breaks off their affair, he’s so consumed with jealousy he hires a private detective to discover who has replaced him in her affection. His rival turns out to be God himself, with whom Sarah has made a secret pact. Not only does she embrace him but she turns into a kind of saint, and the novel ends with a series of miracles accomplished through her intercession. Imagine pitching that at a studio meeting.
Oddly, in a book otherwise remarkable for particulars of characterization, Sarah is in the beginning a sort of cipher. She’s barely described, and Bendrix falls for her at a glance, without explanation. In the movie, we understand right away. Sarah is Julianne Moore, in one of her subtlest and most luminous performances: Red-haired, porcelain-skinned, she’s dreamily sensual, but also a little hidden, just out of reach. She gives the part a carnality missing in the book, and leaves us in no doubt why Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes, tight-lipped, eyes burning) misses her so and becomes enraged with a God he doesn’t even believe in. Sarah’s physical presence in the movie also makes the spirituality easier to understand. Jordan’s script cleverly allows her to backslide a bit, something the book doesn’t permit, and so we feel her struggling to give up fleshly, earthly love in favor of something less tangible. This Sarah may be a saint, but she’s a warm-blooded one.
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