Graham Greene once said that he had to read aloud, because he found himself
unable to read by the eye. No doubt his thoughts were screaming vociferous
theological debates at each other too loudly for the man to concentrate. Many
people find a clash between their religion and behaviour; few are so obsessed
with the problem that they write about it as prolifically as he did.
"The End of the Affair", one of Greene's least well-known but most intensely
personal novels, inspired by his own real-life dalliance with an American
lady named Catherine Walston, is about how a pact with God brings misery to
two of its characters by supplying them with a reason to end their adulterous
love affair. The desires of their flesh are strong, but the partner who made
the pact is too afraid to break it, and the other one becomes too frustrated
to continue being loveable.
The man is Maurice Bendrix, a young novelist whose reputation is steadily
growing, played in Neil Jordan's film adaptation by Ralph Fiennes. His lover
is his neighbour Sarah Miles (Julianne Moore), the wife of civil servant
Henry (Stephen Rea), an ineffectual chap who has never been much interested
in engaging his bride in physical passion. Maurice and Sarah meet at a
cocktail party thrown by Henry for his colleagues, and become drawn to each
other mainly out of need -- the film is set in London during World War II,
and neither of these people have companions for the cold, the silences or the
It is one of these raids which disturbs the course of their relationship.
Maurice seems to have been crushed by rubble; Sarah panics, pleads with God
to save his life, and says that if her wish is granted she will put an end to
their seedy liaisons. Maurice turns out to be alive, and Sarah breaks contact
The book, narrated by the Maurice character as a bitter "journal of hate",
was quintessential Greene because it didn't have a clear idea of who God was,
or if He even existed, but still threw strong anger at Him. And it was a
fascinatingly tragic and pathetic drama because Maurice was using God as an
excuse for the demise of something that could never have lasted. Affairs
always deceive someone who won't stand to be deceived, and hence are doomed.
Maurice refuses to face this, and lays the blame on friends, family,
onlookers, Henry, Sarah and the Almighty.
The film's first hour is very good, capturing this tone of a poet slinging
back whiskies as he tells a barman how sickening it is that the good times
are over. Fiennes's face is unmoving, constricted, sour and angry. The
surroundings are damp, ominous and dark; cold, lifeless streets plagued by
rain act as the visual accompaniment to the harsh voice-over.
Such technical proficiency continues throughout, but at some point in its
second half, Jordan's screenplay suddenly turns into a depressingly
conventional story of forbidden love. Sarah decides she can't keep her
promise to God, and her and Maurice reunite! When they are finally separated
by her death, the movie's conclusion is the same as the novel's -- Maurice
protesting against the merciless nature of God -- but his reasons are a lot
less interesting. Sarah's promise is, quite rightly, the cornerstone of
Greene's story, but it's rather irrelevant under Jordan. He just sees it as a
handy plot device to cause the lovers' initial break-up.
Copyright © 2000 UK Critic