WRITERS AND GUMSHOES go together in Neil Jordan's terrific new adaptation of Graham Greene's heartbreaking novel about a doomed wartime affair. The writer is Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes), the gumshoe is Parkis (Ian Hart, Backbeat's John Lennon), and their connection is one of those ugly marital jobs that usually lends evidence to a divorce case. The bad marriage belongs to Sarah (Julianne Moore) and Henry Miles (Stephen Rea), yet Bendrix is the client paying the P.I. to investigate his own infidelity with Sarah—two years after it ended.
THE END OF THE AFFAIR directed by Neil Jordan with Ralph Fiennes, Julianne Moore, and Stephen Rea opens December 25 at Seven Gables
"Goodness has so little fictional value," says the novelist Bendrix in a voice-over from his so-called diary, quite aware that he's not been a good friend to Henry—nor, perhaps, a good lover to Sarah, who abruptly left him during London's '44 bombing raids ("I bored her with my jealousy"). He's hurt, and devious enough to have Parkis snoop into Sarah's life and finally even steal her diary (abetted by Parkis' disfigured young son).
Yet seen in flashback, Bendrix and Sarah clearly enjoyed a good, mad, passionately physical romance. Jordan pulls the camera in tight on their frantically groping hands trying to get through all that damp English tweed. When they fear dull Henry has heard her orgasmic moans, Sarah scoffs, "He wouldn't recognize the sound." Ouch. We pity Henry (as does Bendrix).
Writers notice everything, Bendrix tells Parkis, as these two narrators amusingly compare their competing accounts. "So who's the wronged party?" Parkis asks. Meanwhile, Bendrix continues to wonder why Sarah left him. There's no rival, no trace, no evidence for the skeptical novelist, played with convincing anger and compulsion by Fiennes.
Just when Bendrix thinks he's got an answer, Jordan turns the tale around and essentially tells it again. Yet in his rescripting of Greene's 1951 novel, Jordan avoids any redundancy in the film's elliptical structure. Thanks in part to the excellent source material, Affair is Jordan's best, smartest film since The Crying Game (also about the elusive nature of love). It powerfully reminds us how narrative—however incomplete or unreliable—can help make sense of our past and our losses. In this way it resembles The English Patient, and moviegoers unfamiliar with Greene can expect a similar final catharsis.
While Jordan does add a few too many scenes to Greene, Affair boasts uniformly top-quality acting and direction. Moore plays a particularly great scene using only her voice and clasped hands. Rea's baleful politician is never a sap or a cuckold. And Fiennes is genuinely moving as a man whose hate turns to fatigue, then turns to something else, something unseen.