The Set Up: War is hell, and sex can be heaven, but it’s the agonizing fate of novelist Maurice Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes) to be stuck between the two. Wartime bombs dropping on London offer him and his married lover Sarah Miles (Julianne Moore) the obliging cover of darkness. When Sarah suddenly ends the relationship (shortly after Maurice’s home is bombed), he becomes consumed with jealousy, hiring a detective (Ian Hart) to follow Sarah, even as he renews his friendship with her secure, civil-servant husband (Stephen Rea). What begins as carnal coupling evolves into a pursuit of grace and forgiveness.
RAY: This movie does justice to Graham Greene’s lyrical novel it’s clever and complex, far more satisfying than the usual Hollywood bump-and-grind that’s churned out in the name of illicit passion. It also dares to raise issues of faith and redemption, topics rarely tackled except in cartoon form in mainstream releases.
KAREN: I agree that the film is deeper than most, but forget redemption. We start off with Fiennes bashing out “This is a diary of hate” at the typewriter, and that’s the emotionally charged tenor of the film overall. There is a hint of a miracle at story’s end, but that kind of grace note inevitably seems impotent when you’ve been riveted by a character’s rage for two hours. Watching someone else seeth forces you to reckon with your own anger; someone else’s miracle just seems like some screenwriter’s fantasy.
RAY: You could argue that there’s something redemptive in simply feeling the kind of ongoing, soul-burning love that Maurice feels for Sarah.
KAREN: It’s hardly that elegant. The man’s a stalker-in-training. Lucky for him there weren’t any laws back then that could drag his sorry butt into court but this guy is such a pain junkie he’d probably get off on a prison cell. He’s practically in one already, a mental lock-up of his own making. I find the film most gripping when it deals with the particulars of the ugly, soul-numbing destructiveness of his pathological jealousy, and the hair-thin line between love and the emotion behind that diary entry.
RAY: But that doesn’t give due credit to one of the film’s most radiant elements, the sex it’s narcotic, even moving. Sarah and Maurice are smoldering at each other from first sight, but you don’t expect their embraces and caresses to come so gratifyingly soon in the story. The first time Maurice and Sarah are alone together in her house, we see his hand snaking up her calf, then under her skirt, as the pair curve along a balustrade to the upstairs living room. Once inside, they keep most of their clothes on, yet we get equal-opportunity stimulation: his hand at her crotch, her hand on his cock through his trousers.
KAREN: But who was looking at Fiennes’ trousers? I was fixated on his suspenders. Fiennes is damn buff for a novelist who spends so much of his time either assaulting that poor typewriter or brooding, and he fills those suspenders so well. He looked particularly appetizing when he was wearing them around the house with no shirt underneath.
RAY: I thought the suspenders made him seem a little persnickety.
KAREN: No kidding. I wanted to snap them against that pale, bare skin just to hear what kind of noise they’d make. Anything to stop Fiennes from glowering in despair. Although he does give great mope. He’s a marvel at making repressed emotion and irrational jealousy seem sexy.
RAY: He does have ardor to burn here. The set-up helps the best sex always happens when obstacles have been surmounted.
KAREN: Or mounted.
RAY: At any rate, it’s a recipe for steaminess Jordan has followed with success before of course, you see it in The Crying Game; and in The Miracle, he’s got a boy inadvertently falling in love with his long-lost mother. And while the cinematic style of The End of the Affairreflects the kind of 1940s movies Greene both wrote and reviewed calm framing, elegant pacing, the occasional canted angle the sex seems modern. Or should we say, timeless. Either way, it’s white-hot, unusually so, almost embarrassingly so. You can sense Maurice’s excitement at Sarah’s physicality, but also at cuckolding such a dull TwoOnOneity figure as Henry.
KAREN: Henry is so lugubrious he practically makes a case for compulsory adultery. My big question is why Sarah married him in the first place.
RAY: Stephen Rea is sad; Henry carries the burden of love without passion. And the story, in both Greene and Jordan’s versions, does a good job of showing how a woman like Sarah would have to live within the boundaries of the era, in the good yet porridge-y world of a cabinet minister’s wife.
KAREN: Okay, okay, so she wants to be safe and secure and have a nice big mansion with a nice big sweeping staircase where Fiennes can artfully fondle her on the way up, but there has to be more to life than Housekeeping with Henry.
RAY: Fortunately, the film starts at such a canter that we don’t see her stultifying daily life just her great relief at discovering unbridled passion with Maurice.
KAREN: I especially liked how Moore’s face flushes with equal amounts of guilt and desire. I would no doubt also be blushing with embarrassment if I had to wear that ghastly wartime wardrobe, with those architecturally hazardous hats perched on my head.
RAY: Another reason for Sarah to get him into bed quickly so we don’t have to see such a lovely actress suffering couture torture.
KAREN: If you want to talk torture, let’s talk about Michael Nyman’s piano-pounding score, which in some ways marred an otherwise beautifully directed, emotionally resonant film. Maybe they wanted us to feel Maurice’s pain.
RAY: Bringing us back to one of the film’s most astute observations: What do you want when you can’t have what you want? Others to suffer the way you do.
KAREN: Not just the way you suffer. Worse than you suffer. And I did.
RAY: Snap someone’s suspenders. You’ll get over it.
Karen Moline and Ray Pride met while waiting to interview John Travolta at a 1996 press junket. From these auspicious beginnings, they’ve built a friendship around near daily, usually catty email exchanges on politics, writing and the wide world of film.
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