High Spirituality
Elbert Ventura on The End of the Affair

As an ardent secularist, religious agonizing has never held much interest for me. The intractability of that most fundamental of questions—how are we to live—seems to diminish in urgency when God enters the calculus. Perhaps it is the proscription of agency that God’s existence necessarily implies that I find troubling. Divining the moral and ethical path seems less problematic—so less like torture—when so many of the answers already seem predetermined.

That said, there have been deeply spiritual works of art that have pierced through this lapsed Catholic’s shell. When I think of Dreyer’s close-ups of a suffering Falconnetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc, or that final cut to salvation in The Last Temptation of Christ, or the act of Christian mercy that concludes the Dardennes’ The Son, I can’t help but be moved by a vision of a world where god exists—and in which we have to reconcile living by his word with our own corrupted state. In Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, the protagonist is dragged all but kicking and screaming to confront that very question. A man who doesn’t believe in God at the outset, he relents by the end: “I hate You, God, I hate You as though You existed.” It’s less a conversion than a surrender.

In the days when literary fiction still had a modicum of mainstream relevance, Time magazine put Greene on its cover in 1951 with the headline, “Adultery can lead to sainthood.” The caption was a glib précis of the novel’s theme, an account of a dalliance between a writer and a bureaucrat’s wife. Steeped in Greene’s indelible resignation, the novel offered a concentrated dose of the author’s recurring themes: the inscrutability of the divine, the futility of human striving, the paradox of living in faith even as one wallows in earthly corruption. Looking back now, Neil Jordan’s 1999 adaptation of the book seems distinctly unfashionable, a love story of operatic grandeur that dealt with not just the love between two people, but that of a believer and her god.

The opening strains of Michael Nyman’s billowy score prime our anticipation for an old-fashioned weepie. But the voiceover comes in and we realize this will be different: “This is a diary of hate.” Maurice Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes), sitting at a typewriter, tells us his story, which begins long past the end of his affair. Walking home one rainy night, Maurice runs into Henry (Stephen Rea), an old friend—and the husband of the woman with whom he had had a long relationship before she mysteriously cast him off. Two years after the last tryst, troubled Henry tells Maurice that he suspects Sarah (Julianne Moore) is having an affair. With that divulgement, the contempt that had festered for two years comes back. He flashes it with relish when he sees Sarah that night, and puts it to work when he hires Parkis (Ian Hart), a private detective, to follow her around to find out the new paramour. And so begins Maurice’s descent back into the happiest time in his life and what he will mourn the rest of his days.

Set during the blitz, The End of the Affair chronicles a romance that bookends the war. Jordan approximates the novel’s peripatetic structure, jumping back and forth from early flashbacks to later ones, all held together by Maurice’s typing. Maurice first meets Sarah at a party in 1939; they fall in love soon after. The two carry on for years, with Henry seemingly unsuspecting. The beginning of the end comes in June 1944. An explosion tears through Maurice’s apartment, throwing Maurice down a few floors and apparently killing him. Despondent, Sarah drops to her knees and prays—if He brings Maurice back, she promises never to see him again. God works his cruel mercy: Maurice rises like Lazarus, and Sarah, holding to her promise, is consigned to a living death.

None of this is known to Maurice—or to us. Part of the genius of the movie’s construction is its neat reversal of our subjectivity halfway through. Posing as a cocktail party guest, Parkis pilfers Sarah’s journal and gives it to Maurice. From his voiceover, we switch to hers, as Maurice reads and realizes the enormity of his error. Their fateful final day is repeated, this time through her eyes, a scene Moore plays perfectly—you can see faith and disbelief tussle behind her shocked stare at Maurice’s resurrection. The blanks filled in, the narrative’s theme shifts into focus. If the wrenching issues of faith and faithfulness, love and religion provide the questions, Sarah’s destiny suggests answers. Having discovered the truth, Maurice beseeches Sarah to run away with him. She does—but not forever. An idyll at a seaside resort is interrupted by Henry, playing God’s messenger: Sarah, it seems, is dying. Henry asks Maurice to stay at his place to tend to her in her last days; they mourn together when she passes. But God gives the knife one last twist. Maurice runs into Parkis at her funeral, where he gives his condolences and tells him of the strangest thing: the blemish on his son’s face, there since birth, has miraculously disappeared. Parkis’s son believes it was the kiss on the cheek from Sarah that did it.

Magical things always seem to be happening to Jordan’s characters, and so it is here. But The End of the Affair is not about the enchantment of the everyday, but the burden of the transcendent: miracles confound, rather than comfort, when you don’t believe in them. A movie of dichotomies, The End of the Affair finds its locus in its bold eroticism. Jordan’s masterstroke was to put the sexual front and center. Sarah and Maurice’s first time is a fevered fumbling replete with the jarring sight of nudity and a high-pitched orgasm—in plain sight, in a well-appointed home. Maurice and Sarah’s animal passion contrasts with their milieu’s decorum; the rapture of sex becomes a defiant rebuff to the horrors of the blitz. Most importantly, however, the carnal forcefulness amplifies the heart of the matter—the struggle between the immanent and the worldly, God’s pure love versus “ordinary corrupt human love.” Sex becomes a synecdoche for the whole of human experience, mired in the impure, inescapably physical, and yet irrevocably ours.

Jordan’s movie foregrounds the affair, not its end. Upon its release, there was much dismay among some critics regarding Jordan’s decision to change the book’s denouement. In the novel, Sarah dies about two-thirds of the way through, her vow kept to the very end. The last third chronicles the days following her death, as the embittered Maurice is buffeted by little miracles—“coincidences,” as he prefers it—that, added up, test his disbelief, enough for him to hate a God he never believed in. (Greene afterwards conceded that the novel falters on this front, as he had intended the erosion of Maurice’s rationalism to last the course of a lifetime. He said that he simply could not go on prolonging the story with Sarah dead.) Jordan’s version smoothly folds in the spiritual angst of this section into the love story. The movie gives Maurice and Sarah one last getaway—the last temptation of Sarah—before she trudges to her end. Some have objected to that change by Jordan, but I think it works—Sarah’s martyrdom only gains meaning when we are given a palpable sense of what is lost. That final rendezvous with Maurice is Jordan’s painful reminder of the sweet, common happiness that we are too weak to give up, but that can never last either.

Graceful word made intense flesh, Jordan’s movie manages to give form to a story resolutely wedded to the page. A novelist himself, Jordan keeps the essence of the book intact. He wisely opts to leave in as much of Greene’s prose as possible, while conflating a few characters and condensing the plot. Just as important, Jordan’s knack for casting helps make Greene’s story his own. Fiennes the philanderer may not have been much of a stretch, but there’s a reason he gets pigeonholed—the movie is unimaginable without him. Moore’s role is trickier, partly because Sarah has to remain a cipher for much of the movie. Running the gamut from whore to saint, she gives the role a crucial core of restraint. As the cuckold, Stephen Rea is stuck with a one note part, from which he plays surprisingly plaintive strains by the end. Offering a needed counterpoint, the incomparable Ian Hart plays Parkis with Dickensian color without lapsing into two-dimensional caricature. He steals every scene he’s in.

Depicting a sacred love born of sin, The End of the Affair is as obsessive as it is encompassing. Lingering on our pettiness, Greene in fact makes the case that love, hate, lust, jealousy, regret and the whole lot of it are also what give meaning to human experience. The movie may risk ridicule by plunging into those themes—and into the metaphysical—but that has never been a concern for Jordan. Delivering Greene’s miracles with a straight face, Jordan earns our tears. It’s certainly a more convincing miracle movie than another, more notorious weepie: Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves. For Von Trier, the metaphysical is just another button to push—there is nothing at stake, morally and spiritually, in his bogus movie. In The End of the Affair, on the other hand, the intensity of the soul-searching feels rooted in truth—you can sense that these are the questions Greene wrestled with himself. How to be good and be human at the same time? It’s a question that has no answer, but merely asking may be what matters in the end.