The End of the Affair (review)

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The Price of Love

I’m not sure why very mannered and restrained love stories like The End of the Affair appeal to me. Perhaps it’s because I, like the characters that inhabit movies like this, am the kind of person who keeps these emotions close to the vest. (I can’t stand listening grown women in public restrooms blabbering on about their boyfriends, as if they’d all just come from the junior prom.) Perhaps it’s that movies like The End of the Affair deal with love and sex from an adult point of view — and the mere fact that I have to explain that by “adult” I don’t mean “pornographic” is example enough that romance onscreen typically is depicted at a juvenile level no matter what the age of the lovers.
Adult relationships come with trade-offs — this chilly fact is at the core of The End of the Affair. Directed by Neil Jordan (The Butcher Boy, Michael Collins), who also adapted Graham Greene’s novel for the screen, this simultaneously polite and strikingly erotic film gives us three people who’ve come to this realization. Henry Miles (Stephen Rea: This Is My Father, The Butcher Boy, whose long streak of one-upping himself continues here) is a repressed civil servant who “prefers habit to happiness,” or so says his wife, Sarah (Julianne Moore: An Ideal Husband, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, as fabulous as always). Their marriage is passionless, and Henry doesn’t seem to fathom that things could be otherwise. He’s so clueless, in fact, that he has no hesitation in sending Sarah off to the cinema with their neighbor, novelist Maurice Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes: Oscar and Lucinda, The English Patient, who’s making a career of playing tortured lovers, though he always finds something new in his characters). War preparations — the year is 1939 and the setting is London — are keeping Henry too busy at work to accompany them, or, indeed, to pay much attention to his wife at all.

The End of the Affair actually opens years later, when a chance encounter with Henry prompts Maurice to begin a “diary of hate.” As the film skips back and forth in time and takes on multiple viewpoints, we learn that Sarah and Maurice had an affair, now long over, the end of which hurt Maurice much more deeply than he lets on. Ironically, it’s only now that Henry suspects Sarah may be having an affair, as he confides to Maurice. His jealousy aroused, Maurice is the one who ends up hiring a private detective to find out whom Sarah is seeing.

So whom does Maurice hate? Henry? Sarah? Himself? Why did his affair with Sarah end? Extended flashbacks show us a couple at first seemingly startled to find themselves falling in love giving in to almost desperate lust and desire. Making love while bombs literally fall around them, they found peace in the midst of war, living in their own world in which nothing else mattered. The film sucks the viewer into their secluded and protected sphere with some of the sexiest imagery onscreen this year, which, while certainly not intended for young eyes, is not particularly graphic. In fact, as is usually the case, the more that’s hidden, the more erotic the film is: Maurice and Sarah make love while practically fully clothed; he puts her stocking on as he ruminates on why he’s jealous of her clothing; their bodies move suggestively under the bedsheets; and, in the single most romantic moment in the film, they kiss, totally hidden from us, under the raincoat he holds over their heads during a storm. It’s like an old photo you’d find on a London postcard — the film as a whole, shot in gorgeous, muted greens and blues and golds, looks like a well-worn and beloved old photograph.

But The End of the Affair — Neil Jordan’s most mature film yet — isn’t about sex. A meditation on the grip that jealousy can hold, it’s also about all the ways and reasons for which we can be unable to express love, and about the dark power that love can have. It’s not giving too much away to reveal that The End of the Affair is not merely about a love triangle but a quadrangle — it’s the entity at the fourth point to whom Sarah promises never to see Maurice again. And a promise extracted by one love that sacrifices another, however, is not a comfortable one, as Sarah learns.

Longing to be with the wrong someone, and the willing devotion to promises that are painful to keep — these are the realities of love and lust that movies tend to ignore, because they don’t make for very happy stories. They do make for very real ones, though.

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