Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Faith Healer

Neil Jordan returns to form

By Peter Keough

DECEMBER 28, 1999:  It's traditional that a deal with the Devil can be broken -- but a bargain with God is for good. So goes the moral of Graham Greene's crankiest novel, The End of the Affair. Sourly autobiographical, it wallows in bad faith; though taking the part of the Devil's advocate, its narrator -- embittered Greene stand-in Maurice Bendrix -- in effect is offering a polarized catechism, a litany of anti-God denunciations that if held up to a mirror read the opposite.

The novel's obsessive, meditative, even whiny style and substance are a challenge for the screen -- the one previous adaptation, Edward Dmytryk's in 1955, was a dud. Maybe because the theme of unattainable love is close to his heart, as seen in Mona Lisa, The Miracle, and The Crying Game, or maybe because he saw it as a chance to redeem himself after the debacle of In Dreams, Neil Jordan warms to the task. Although sometimes strained and schematic (his pagan, lapsed Catholicism is at odds with Greene's puritanical, new-found faith), Jordan's Affair rings true. It's a deft cinematic translation of a daunting novel and a formally challenging investigation of character and point of view. More important, it's a chilling exploration of those questions that can really stymie a soul -- is there a God? what is love? -- and that if honestly answered, as his characters discover, can change a life forever.

At first it seems Jordan is going to be overly faithful to the text: not only does he have Maurice (Ralph Fiennes, tight-lipped in his randiness and self-loathing) recite in voiceover the novel's opening lines ("This is a diary of hate"), but he provides a close-up of the typewriter keys hammering said lines into a sheet of paper. But hate is not as big a problem with Maurice as perception. Can one love or be loved when unseeing or unseen?

The question bugs him because he has by chance fallen in love with Sarah (a pale Julianne Moore, who will grow paler still), the wife of Henry (Stephen Rea, paying for his sins in Guinevere by playing an ineffectual prig), a government minister whom Maurice is researching for a novel he's writing. It's London on the eve of World War II and everyone is keyed up, so after his first meeting with Sarah at a party, Maurice takes her to a film adaptation of one of his own novels (a self-reflexive motif that goes nowhere), feeds her onions, takes her home, and humps her on the sitting-room floor within earshot of her husband. ("Will he hear?" he asks. "He wouldn't recognize the sound," she answers.) So begins a five-year fling abetted by Henry's obtuseness and Nazi air raids.

Quick work even by today's standards, but already Affair has grown cubist. Told in elaborate flashbacks, with the same incidents repeated from different points of view with mounting irony and rueful insight, it begins with a post-war, post-affair frame tale in which Maurice, bumping into Henry in the rain (a recurrent fallacy that grows too pathetic), learns that he suspects Sarah of infidelity. As this would entail her being unfaithful to him as well, Maurice perversely goes ahead with Henry's half-hearted notion of hiring a detective, Mr. Parkis (Ian Hart), to check up on his wife.

Although admittedly prompted by a "devil" within him, Maurice's vengeful whim leads him to a confrontation with the nature of fate and divinity. The key to his understanding of what happened is the moment when Sarah ended their affair. After they've made love in his apartment during a V-1 raid, Maurice walks downstairs to check that all is clear; he pauses before a blood-red stained-glass window (a rare burst of color in this etiolated film), that, in silence, erupts around him from a delayed buzzbomb explosion.

What happens next is seen in two versions: Maurice's and, by means of a purloined diary, Sarah's. Maurice survives, but how and why -- a miracle? -- is unclear. What is unambiguous is Sarah's rejection. She will always love him, she says, but she will never see him. Can one love the unseen, he asks. "Maybe that's the only love there is," she replies.

The unseen, of course, is the One whose point of view is beyond that of Maurice or Sarah or Parkis, beyond perhaps even that of the filmmaker. Jordan ably suggests the immanence of the divine through the use of high-angled shots and high-handed ironies. Less effective is his reliance on voiceover passages from the original -- he should have had as much faith in the unsaid as in the unseen. Neither is the melodramatic device of illness -- you know you're in trouble when the phrase "You'll catch your death" is uttered twice in the same rainstorm -- any less creaky in the film than in the novel. Such flaws aside, Jordan's Affair may not restore faith in miracles, but it does lay bare the miracle of faith.


Miracle worker?

"Miracles?" says Irish director Neil Jordan. "They don't mean anything, really."

Maybe he's just being cryptic or disingenuous, but it's hard to believe that the man who made Danny Boy and The Butcher Boy, not to mention The Miracle, would deny the importance of divine intervention. Indeed, his latest film, an adaptation of Graham Greene's novel The End of the Affair, involves not one but two instances of the miraculous, and their ironic consequences.

"A lot of the stories I choose, even when I write them, are about characters who are confronted by things they don't understand," Jordan explains. "They don't know what they are really facing but they assume they are going down a logical path. Like in The Crying Game. The character played by Stephen Rea assumes he's in love with a woman but he's really a man. Or Mona Lisa -- Bob Hoskins thinks he's on the right path with Cecily Tyson but he learns otherwise. I'm attracted to those kinds of stories. Ambiguous stories that can be interpreted in different ways. Like in The Butcher Boy. Was it the Virgin Mary he saw or was it his imagination?"

One thing Jordan found unambiguous in Greene's semi-autobiographical tale of wartime adultery and regret is the passion. The adulterous lovers Maurice and Sarah, played by Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore, engage in some of the year's hottest sex scenes, which are made more intense by the thud of bombs in the background and the proximity of death. "What attracted me to Greene's novel was that it was a terribly passionate affair, a very erotic story, it explored the relationship in many ways. The state of intensity of their relationship puts them in a different place, where time is suspended, almost like Eden. And the war, because it created the intensity of the moment, because they can be killed at any moment and that added a totality to their commitment. It adds to the eroticism, and the spirituality. Eroticism and spirituality -- you don't think of those as two things that go hand in hand, but they do."

They do especially in the film's central, enigmatic scene. Maurice and Sarah have made love, ignoring a V-1 attack. Maurice stands in front of a stained-glass window that disintegrates from a delayed explosion. What happens next, depending on the point of view, could be a delusion or a miracle, and a promise is made that could be a sign of genuine faith or folly.

"That's what drew me to the story," says Jordan. "It was a love story told from the point of view of an obsessive man infused with jealousy and hatred who's forced to confront the same events from another point of view. Especially that suspended moment which could be interpreted many different ways. Anybody who's experienced death or near death, they always instinctively appeal to a higher power. To me it was entirely rational for her to have done that and that she would have made this promise."

On the matter of miracles, though, Jordan remains neutral; he wants to keep this Affair on a human and not a divine level. "Do I want to stir up any religious issues? No, I don't. I just want to make a love story about the kind of promises people make to each other. And the whole idea of sexual contact, of an affair, and the responsibility people take for each other. This is similar to The Crying Game, in which Stephen Rae made a promise and he has to keep it. In both situations they both make a promise that doesn't give them what they want. But they keep their promises. I find it terribly moving, and I'm not even a religious person."


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