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Keeping the Faith"The End of the Affair

Keeping the Faith: "The End of the Affair"

Opening night: the 7:30 p.m. showing. San Francisco. Date night. We had advance tickets. The theater was about one-third full. By showtime, it still wasn't even half full. I was hoping they were wrong, the ones that hadn't come, that I was about to be transported to the places where good acting and good film-making can take you.

Wrong. It had to happen sometime. And I can take solace in the fact that David Denby of the New Yorker (who had the nerve to pan Roberto Benigni's "Life is Beautiful"--a big, unforgivable mistake in my book) and I didn't exactly agree on Neil Jordan's film, "The End of the Affair." Denby liked it more. But my feelings are far too close for comfort. Mine, that is. Usually, I'm more or less with Janet Maslin of the New York Times. I wish I'd seen what she saw.

I'm trying to remember the first shot. It might have been rain. Or mist. No wait, I think it was Ralph Fiennes in a voice-over. Then came the interminable close-ups. One after another. The most boring cinematography I've seen in a long time. Was the novel by Graham Greene better? It must have been, because it very likely consisted of more than close-up shots and tepid dialogue. The word that springs to mind--I hate to say it---is melodrama. Now, melodrama has its uses. But a film with Ralph Fiennes in the lead romantic role is not one of them.

Fiennes, a writer named Maurice (pronounce it Morris) Bendrix, goes to write about the government nobody husband (Stephen Rea, who can be so good) of Julianne Moore. Her character has a name, but I can't remember it. She always seemed like Julianne Moore to me.

They fall in love, but we don't see this. We see the hang-dog husband, looking, as he puts it, "ridiculous." Trouble is, he's not the only one. We see the illicit couple making love. A few times. We see lights flicker and hear bombs explode outside as they make love. The audience laughed a few times. We see it happen again. I start rubbing my eyes; surely I'm seeing things. Jordan must know better than this.

A bigbomb explodes just outside the window where they are making love. Fiennes is thrown forward, with the blast behind him, as glass and small pieces of wood fall around him. We see this three times. It wasn't that good the first time. He looks dead, she prays. Was there anyone who didn't guess she swore to God she wouldn't see him again, if only HE would let him live? Did we really need that revelatory scene from her point of view? Squirming in my seat for reasons I never dreamed, I wanted it to end.

It does, but not before Ralph's been asked to move in by the hangdog husband, Ralph serves her tea, and Ralph has yelled for three or so lines about how she wasn't good (as in a "good" woman), and how he hates God and the minister (priest? cleric? he's in a collar, at any rate) for taking her away from him. (And here I thought she died of that hacking cough.) Oh yes--that's right. It's the tie-in with the beginning of the film, where we get the typewriter in close up. Old-fashioned keys. He talks about hate.

Is this the same movie that Fiennes discussed so intently, so intelligently, with Charlie Rose, the television interviewer you'd most want to have at your dinner party? (I'm imagining he could dish.) Who are Bendrix, Sarah (my husband just yelled her name from the next room; he's reading the reviews now), and the hangdog husband? We never find out. And there's a little trick at the end--I won't spoil this for you, because, well, there isn't much else for you to look out for, really. But in my view, it's a cheap little writing trick, which doesn't answer any character questions (there are no plot questions because there isn't a plot), but pretends to be deep. Or religious. You can tell I'm guessing, because I really have no idea what Jordan had in mind. I bet you won't either, but if you do, did you see "Breaking the Waves" with Emily Watson?

Don't get me wrong. Fiennes looks, well . . . fantastic. Every Fiennes fan will buy this movie (the second it hits the sell-through price), grab the remote, and lock herself inside for the night. I wasn't about to get up and leave when I could watch Fiennes--a lot of him--up close and personal. Those eyes, that voice, and his soulful, sad--okay, brooding and jealous--looks turn me to jelly. But I like a movie with my jelly. It's the thinnest excuse for a plot, or a screenplay, which doesn't last for the duration of the film stock. Never has an "erotic" (they roll about on the bed) photoshoot, with a neo-tragic lens (she starts that coughing, and you know trouble will follow, she will die!) been so dutifully wrought forth. If this film was about faith--and I believe it was supposed to be--it missed entirely. It wasn't about love--because the whole "affair" was resolutely joyless. The audience were laughing in places because they needed to--and no other moment was provided. The film is as far from Anthony Minghella's "The English Patient" as, well . . . all my analogies are too cruel to write, I'm so irritated and disappointed.

I'd like to blame it on the music, which was--awful, awful, awful. Melodramatic violins swelling and screeching, making the already tedious painfully embarrassing. (Michael Nyman composed the music for a long list of films (53), but none of them do I remember for their music, and one--Mesmer, starring Alan Rickman--suffered from more than music and sound mix problems.)

I laughed once--but it was a rather private laugh. Fiennes says to his lover, "The world didn't end, did it?" Or something nearly like it. Fox Mulder says the same thing to Dana Scully when he kisses her--for the first time--when they ring in the year 2000. That moment was far more enjoyable--and sexy--than "The End of the Affair." I know, some Fiennes fans are going to say they loved this movie. (And hate me for liking a moment of the X-Files more.) But I can oooooh and ahhhhh over his looks, charisma, presence and acting, and still have to say this was not a good movie.

Have I lost faith? Not at all. But I do hope that Martha Fiennes' direction of the upcoming "Onegin" (adapted from Pushkin's poem) can show us what love lost can really mean.

My husband and I left our seats. He could see I was moody. We reached the lobby. "I don't want to talk about it," I exclaimed, loudly enough to be noticed by others leaving the theatre. Out in the night air, he took me gently aside, with assurances. "It's not your fault."

"Say another word, and I'll hit you," was my reply. Then I told him I'd write this in my review. I had a good time after that.

Post Review Notes . . .

Below, a second opinion, and an article reviewing Fiennes' characters, which, oddly, omits a mention of Ivanov.

This is London
11 February 2000
The End Of The Affair
Alexander Walker

Early on in The End of the Affair, Maurice Bendrix ( Ralph Fiennes) takes his mistress, Sarah Miles (Julianne Moore), to a film called 21 Days, which he's scripted, and squirms with embarrassment. "I didn't write that scene," he moans. No, indeed: Graham Greene did. Twenty-One Days was Greene's first screen-writing job in 1939, an adaptation of a Galsworthy story which censorship neutered by refusing to approve an on-screen suicide and an innocent man who's hanged.

Sixty years later, as all know who've followed the argy-bargy over the restrictive Certificate 18 placed on Stephen Woolley's production of The End of the Affair, censorship is still playing the devil with Graham Greene derivatives. But at least Greene wouldn't be squirming to see how Neil Jordan has adapted and directed it.

It's the best film ever made of his Catholic fiction. It's about a woman's guilt trip from adultery to sanctity, and about the three men in her life. One is Bendrix her lover; one is her husband Henry (Stephen Rea). But it's the Third Man who is the most elusive and omnipotent: selfish, ruthless and underhand. Not Harry Lime this time: but God. No need to tell you who wins.

The End of the Affair is about human hatred quite as much as divine love. Most of the hatred is aimed at God by Bendrix for intervening in the affair between him and Sarah much more damningly than Parkis, the seedy private eye (Ian Hart) whom the lover hires so as to keep a jealous eye by proxy on his mistress after their abrupt parting two years earlier.

During a wartime air raid, a flying bomb brought the house crashing down around Bendrix, leaving him for dead. Upstairs, shocked by a greater force than the explosion, Sarah makes God a pledge. Let her lover live, and she will give him up for good. The affair thus ends with a whimper of prayer as well as a bang, and Bendrix cannot forgive the Almighty. He doesn't discover Sarah's sacred pledge until he reads her diary. This reveals, to his anguish, that while he enjoyed her body it's his rival who got her soul.

Using Sarah's diary as a confessional device and Bendrix's commentary on it as a secular rebuttal, Jordan's script switches back and forth between narrators as well as time past and present. It sets a film that is essentially a meditation on the mysteries of love and religion reverberating with the savage ironies of an embittered lover in conflict with the vows of his penitent mistress. The scourge rules this story more than the caress.

No wonder Greene introduced the private eye in order to lighten up the mood. It can do with it. Seldom have characters had such consistent bad luck with the weather. God makes sure rain falls on the just and unjust, and never gently. The look of immediate post-war London is unforgivingly dank: a Greene and unpleasant land, dourly evoked by Roger Pratt's low-lit interiors and designed by Anthony Pratt with the comfortless air of waiting-rooms rather than living rooms.

Sandy Powell's dresses and suitings look designed by a stern tailor to keep passion in as well as cold out, at least until irresistible desire loosens suspenders and silk stockings are rolled over thighs, whereupon the erotica of their wearers comes out of hiding. Non-Catholics may have trouble with Greene's view that God answers prayers simply as a sneaky test of faith - to see if the bargain struck is based on dedication or the emotion of the moment.

But the acting will pull even non-believers into the story. Fiennes makes Bendrix's jealousy of the Deity palpable and painful. Stephen Rea, swapping his Irish brogue for English civil service vowels, plays Sarah's husband with helpless sincerity, a picture of an inadequate man done with dignity. Julianne Moore makes the flesh seem to be acting independently of the soul: she is sensually inviting and selflessly pure, sometimes in the same breath.

Alot of welcome humour comes from Hart's gumshoe. Covertly tracking his employer round his cheerless rendez-vous with Sarah, Parkis's grubby gentility comically converts his eye-witness accounts of the couple's assignations into the officialese of courtroom evidence: "The law generally deems an hour to be necessary for intimacy, sir." When "intimacy" happens here, it's briefer but carnal enough, yet doesn't deserve to pay the penalty of a Certificate 18. The film censors have got it wrong and, if not a nihil obstat, should substitute a Certificate 15 without delay.

As in The English Patient, another tale of a man's fore-doomed love and a woman's terminal sacrifice, the time sequence of events is brilliantly restructured. Cause sometimes follows effect, lending an air of tension and mystery to events that the film wouldn't possess if the affair were chronicled chronologically as it was in Edward Dmytryk's 1954 version with Deborah Kerr and Van Johnson.

The air-raid scene - itself a shattering special effect, enveloping Bendrix and Sarah like an angry exhalation from heaven - is repeated twice over, once from his viewpoint, later from hers, to mark the moment human love is reborn in Sarah's anguished prayer for God's mercy as divine love. And Bendrix's own battering at the gates of Heaven resounds through the rest of the story like the anger of a lockedout suitor jilted because of God.

I find only one serious flaw in a masterly film, which exists in the novel, too, where Greene's characters included an atheist with a birthmark disfiguring his face. Jordan's film mischievously turns him into a smug Roman Catholic priest (Jason Isaacs) whose only struggle with belief comes from buttoning his back collar stud. It's now the detective's schoolboy son Lance (Samuel Bould), acting as a stalking horse for his dad, who bears the birthmark. This removes the book's simplistic link between blemish and unbelief.

But then Jordan, like Greene, lifts the affliction in a last-minute miracle intended to signify Sarah's ascent into sainthood. This is cheating. The story is about Christian doubt and God's mercy; no need for Catholic conjuring tricks. Never mind: The End of the Affair achieves a spiritual dimension unique in current cinema.

Instead of attending service this Sunday, it would do the worshippers of whatever sect a power of good to congregate in their neighbourhood cinema, and take their sermon off the screen.

******

The Heart of Darkness
The Independent
12 February 2000
Thomas Sutcliffe

All stars have to live with the consequences of their public radiance - one of which is that they attract adjectives in swarms, verbal moths that bump and flutter in their faces. And since all stars give off light of their own distinctive wavelength, the words that are drawn to them usually come in distinct types. Those that circle round Ralph Fiennes, for example, are identifiably all of a single species - "brooding", "troubled", "Byronic", "intense" - a congregation of epithets that his last two British film releases will have done very little to disperse.

In Onegin, directed by his sister Martha Fiennes, he played the melancholy hero of Pushkin's poem - a man whose aristocratic hauteur severs him from the one affection that might have thawed the shard of ice in his heart. And in The End of the Affair, Neil Jordan's account of Graham Greene's novel, he takes the role of Maurice Bendrix, a novelist whose adulterous wartime affair ends in deep unhappiness. Both parts did little to disturb what has become his established branding as a film actor - a cool reserve that hints at profound feeling but in which hurt is mostly turned inwards - as if a hedgehog were to curl up the wrong way round.

The release of Jordan's film has been somewhat blurred by what you might call the affair of the end - a noisy public spat about the censor's reluctance to let minors catch a glimpse of Fiennes's naked rear in action during one of the film's love scenes - but the sniggering bathos of the press coverage is unlikely to leave any permanent mark on its star's image. The film confirms him as a marquee star of an antique kind, one of those actors who live to be gazed at as much as listened to. And the interesting question - the intensely alluring question for many of his female fans - is still the same. What precisely is he brooding about and could it be cured by love?

His childhood might have been crafted by an assiduous PR, so neatly does it presage a career as a romantic star. He was born in 1962, the oldest of six, his brothers and sisters providing a handy, if occasionally reluctant audience for his early performances. Martha recently recalled one of those premonitory scenes of childhood beloved of cheap biographers, in which the boy who would later be nominated for an Oscar for his performance as the monstrous Amon Goeth in Schindler's List did jokey imitations of a cruel Nazi guard while his siblings washed up.

Both of Fiennes's parents were creative - his father, Mark, a photographer and his mother, Jini, a painter, novelist and travel writer. If they were not quite bohemian, then at least they were unusually open to change. The family moved 15 times during his childhood and Fiennes has talked of the difficulty of changing schools so frequently - an adolescent ordeal that may account for some of the reserve that even close friends identify in his character. What this upbringing lacked in stability, though, it made up for in creative nourishment.

For his eighth birthday he was given a recording of Olivier in Hamlet, and another gift - a toy theatre - provided him with his first stage, even if it could only accommodate his voice. His first full-sized role was that of Romeo with an amateur youth theatre company.

After A-levels he did a foundation course at Chelsea School of Art in 1981 but almost immediately decided that this was a wrong turning. He auditioned for Rada and was accepted, filling in the time before his course by skivvying at Brown's Hotel.

What followed was a swift ascent through the standard apprenticeship of an English stage actor - a season at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park, and time on the drill-squares of provincial rep, at Theatre Clwyd and the Oldham Coliseum.

In 1988, three years after he graduated from Rada, he passed out in style, convincing Adrian Noble to put him straight into leading parts in two seasons at Stratford. He first attracted critical attention in Henry VI, in which he played the title role, and as Troilus in an acclaimed production by Sam Mendes. Simon Russell-Beale, who acted with him at the time, recalls an actor still finding his feet but also beginning to play away from his strengths. "A really strong suit of his was his spirituality," Russell-Beale recalls. "The role of Henry VI fitted him like a glove. There was a certain physical gaucheness to it, but also this inner spirituality." He is not an instinctive actor, rather one who worries at the knot of a role until it loosens enough to be readily untangled.

Ruth Letts, a film producer who worked with him on The Cormorant, a Screen Two film he made in 1992, remembers the intensity of his conversations in rehearsal - two weeks of detailed analysis that translated into a shoot untroubled by thespian hesitation. "I think he's a grafter," says Russell-Beale. "He has a great sense of the importance of what we do."

Fiennes's loyalty to the classical stage has survived his Hollywood success. (His next project is to take the roles of Coriolanus and Richard II for Almeida productions of the two plays at the former Gainsborough film studios in London's Shoreditch - a project that neatly combines his classical pedigree and the peculiarly English character of his film style.) After those two seasons at Stratford, it didn't take long for British directors to see that his looks and ability to suggest that something troubled and enigmatic lay behind them offered a potent combination for the screen.

Peter Kosminsky cast him as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, a role he characteristically preferred over Earnshaw, for which he had initially been approached. It was his performance in that film that persuaded Spielberg to consider him for the role of Amon Goeth, the brutal camp commandant in Schindler's List. "I saw sexual evil," Spielberg said later. "It is all about subtlety: there were moments of kindness that would move across his eyes and then instantly run cold."

Goeth was the role that transformed Fiennes into an international star and it changed him physically, too, since he put on weight to give the character an edge of corpulent indulgence. What was most powerful about the performance and allowed it to rise above the clipped Germish accent he was obliged to adopt - a jackboot clamped on to the "voice beautiful" - was the intensity of self-loathing and grief he brought to the part.

His characterisation never amounts to a crude verdict of guilt, allowing you instead to see why it is that despair can be a sin - because the conviction that all is irretrievably lost creates that most dangerous creature: a man who has nothing to lose. In one of Fiennes's best scenes he stares into the mirror, as if baffled by what lies behind the familiar features.

In the same year, in Quiz Show, he delivered what is possibly his finest screen performance to date - playing Charles van Doren, a patrician college boy who, in a real-life scandal in the Fifties, connived in the rigging of a top-rating quiz show. It was a clever piece of typecasting - the scion of an Anglophile New England dynasty played by someone who appeared to be the natural heir of Olivier, at least in his diction and bearing. But Fiennes added need and poignancy to the historical reconstruction, mapping the exact contours of Van Doren's weakness - the way in which TV celebrity offered a kind of substitute for the parental pride he really craved. It was not just a triumph of feeling either; watch the historical recordings of the real Van Doren answering questions and you can see that Fiennes's recreations had the precision of a recording, the perfect simulation of a fake.

For those who enjoy interpreting an actor's work as a reflection of inner turmoil, Fiennes's performance in Quiz Show offers as good an opportunity as any. On screen he played a serious and slightly unworldly young man who found himself plunged into fame and dubious about his entitlement to its rewards; in life a steadily earned reputation in the theatre had suddenly transmuted into a far more dizzying celebrity. Fiennes had begun to learn to soar at the RSC, but on gently sloping ground; now it was as if, without warning, he had gone over the lip of the Grand Canyon. The death of his mother in the preceding year can only have added to the turbulence of this period in his life.

If he felt any vertigo, he soon mastered it. When he next appeared on the English stage - as Hamlet in an Almeida production at the Hackney Empire - it was not just as a leading actor but as a full-blown star, the sort of attraction that warranted AA road signs to guide the fans home.

Those who knew and worked with him before his ascension are fairly unanimous about the grace with which he handled it. But it was clear that he'd crossed a line into a different kind of celebrity; that permanently besieged state in which no one can survive without defensive systems. With a different kind of actor the essential charm might have buckled - but since one of the chief ingredients of Fiennes's appeal is a sense of isolation, the wariness of the famous only reinforced his screen presence.

It's easy to think of Fiennes's career as pretty uniform in its challenges - but largely because stardom creates a kind of amnesia in audiences, so that only those films that confirm the received opinion are remembered. Like someone who finds himself buried in an avalanche he has made attempts to clear a little breathing space around him - in Kathryn Bigelow's science-fiction thriller Strange Days (in which he played a seedy dealer in virtual reality), and with the retread of The Avengers, where he tried to give his English reserve a twist of camp irony. But, though friends say that he can be drily funny in private, Ralph Fiennes and light comedy are hardly natural associations. Insouciance is never going to figure very large on his palette. And it was hardly surprising that he should cut an awkward figure in the future, since he'd always seemed far more at home in the recent past. Though he's cited Brando and DeNiro as professional role models (to an American journalist, as it happens) the glow he gives off is that of gaslight - the illumination of an older era.

Anthony Minghella was right to see that that was precisely the kind of period lustre he needed in The English Patient, the film that came between those failed escape attempts and in which Fiennes delivered perhaps the most economical distillation of heart-throb allure ever written. "Swoon," he murmured urgently to Kristin Scott Thomas, "and I'll catch you." The invitation, with its exciting combination of risk and reassurance, interfered with the cardiac rhythms of millions of viewers and cemented Fiennes's standing as a bankable romantic lead.

The revelation that he was leaving his wife, Alex Kingston, for an older woman - Francesca Annis, who had played his mother in Hamlet - didn't diminish his emotional sway over females of a certain age.

It's clear that Fiennes understands the exact nature of his romantic appeal because he is susceptible to it himself - talking of Onegin, he remarked on the allure of "disaffected men who have some heart of darkness, which actually isn't always there. It is quintessentially romantic, the heart of darkness that could possibly change, like Heathcliff". On another occasion - squashing the rumour that he had auditioned for the Bond movies - he couldn't help himself sketching out a Fiennes makeover of a character that had softened into an unthreatening cartoon. "He's a loner really. Nowadays he'd be hard to like if one were to realise him as Fleming wrote him. I'm intrigued by that."

In Onegin and The End of the Affair you can see that this seductive enigma could easily harden into an affectation. The hazard of a manner so contained and melancholy is that it can easily look like a mope - Eeyore with airs and graces rather than existential depth. But if Fiennes stays this side of self-parody - and his career so far suggests that he will - it remains a prodigiously seductive silhouette. No one can quite match him in depicting men who need the love of a good woman, which is why so many woman dream that they might be good enough to try.

(Thanks to Renata)

For more information:

Click here for Ralph Fiennes: Pushkin Comes to Shove including "Shooting Pushkin", an article by Ralph Fiennes on the making of the film.

For reviews and interviews with Fiennes click here: Ralph Fiennes--"He's not Onegin."