[Screen It]

(1999) (Ralph Fiennes, Julianne Moore) (R)

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Drama: Spurred and tortured by jealous thoughts of what his married paramour might be up to, a 1940s era writer hires a private detective to spy on her.
It's the mid 1940s and Maurice Bendrix (RALPH FIENNES) is a brooding novelist who one night runs into Henry Miles (STEPHEN REA) a former acquaintance of his that he hasn't seen for two years. It turns out that Henry, a reserved and somewhat boorish civil servant, is concerned enough about what his wife, Sarah (JULIANNE MOORE), may be up to that he's considered hiring a private detective to follow her.

Although he eventually decides not to do that, Maurice does, and meets with Mr. Savage (JAMES BOLAM) who runs such a detective firm, telling him that all reports should come back to Maurice and that Henry should know nothing of their activities. While this seems like the actions of a thoughtful friend, it turns out that Maurice and Sarah had an affair those two years ago, until a miracle of sorts and a promise she made had her reluctantly put an end to it.

Despite having not seen her since that parting, the thought of Sarah possibly fooling around with others stirs up deep feelings of jealousy within Maurice. As such, he welcomes the reports of one of Savage's men, Mr. Parkis (IAN HART), who also uses his son Lance (SAM BOULD) to spy upon and collect information about Sarah.

As their investigation continues, we see various flashbacks of Maurice and Sarah's love affair along with their subsequent activities, all told from their unique perspectives that eventually shed light on the truths regarding their relationship.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
In the 1990s, acclaimed director Neil Jordan has brought audiences well-made and occasionally terrific stories of a woman suffering from clairvoyant nightmares ("In Dreams"), a prepubescent sociopath ("The Butcher Boy"), an Irish nationalist involved in guerrilla warfare ("Michael Collins"), an interviewer and a certain vampire ("Interview With the Vampire"), and a "woman" with quite a surprise for her lover ("The Crying Game").

As such, his latest film about post-WWII European lovers might seem like a bit of a letdown and/or a boring affair - no pun intended. In addition, if examined considering just the basic premise, "The End of the Affair" does come off as a rather mundane sounding subject. Fortunately, for it and the audience's sake, it turns into something a bit more interesting and complex. In essence, what saves the film from being just a run of the mill, period romantic drama is the way in which the story is told, and unfolds, and the great performances from all of those involved in it.

While I'm not familiar with Graham Greene's somewhat autobiographical 1951 novel of the same name (based on his own similar experience) or the earlier 1955 filmed adaptation, the story here unfolds in a compelling and interesting fashion that utilizes the apparently still in vogue "rewind" function. That's a device that's been used for years but became quite popular in the last several in films such as "Go!" "Run Lola Run" and "Hilary and Jackie" where the plot suddenly backs up and tells the story from another viewpoint.

Although Jordan's screenplay mixes things up a bit by intermingling the past and present, it doesn't go to the temporal extremes and spectacular ironies of some of those other films. Not being familiar with either the original novel or the earlier film version I can't state with certainty whether or not they used the same time-jumping story structure, but the effect here works quite well.

By presenting the affair from two different perspectives, the viewer is not only intrigued by the differences in the separate viewpoints, but is also drawn into the irony of how things eventually play out. The effect is subtle and slow to develop, but by the end of the film it's quite effective.

What also works quite well is the superb cast and their strong performances. Playing adulterers is often a tricky proposition since it's not entirely beyond audiences to turn their backs on such characters and either hate them or simply not care about the mess in which they've gotten themselves into. As such, the performers inhabiting them have to present them with believable human frailties and enough passion to make one root - at least partially - for their love to continue.

While it doesn't hurt that the married woman in this arrangement is in a loveless marriage (thus making it easier for us not to hate her for her actions), it's the performances by accomplished actors Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore that make the film work and allow the characters to be sympathetic, for the most part, to most viewers.

As the disenchanted, intellectual writer, Fiennes ("The English Patient," "Schindler's List") does a fine job of creating a character whose deep-rooted passion and jealousy constantly battle for control with his more refined behavior and better sense. It's an interesting clash and Fiennes plays it for all it's worth, but smartly avoids going too far in the direction of flashy melodrama.

Continuing her run of playing emotionally tortured characters, Julianne Moore ("Magnolia," "Boogie Nights") is quite good and believable as a woman torn between a love deficient, but secure marriage and the allure of passion and romance with her lover.

Her pledge to remove herself from the latter due to a "miracle" (one of two that occur and are left mostly unexplained and therefore that much more tantalizing) only adds to her torture. As such, and despite her being an adulteress, many in the audience will eventually empathize with her and her predicament.

As her passively sullen husband, actor Stephen Rea ("Guinevere," "The Crying Game") doesn't get as much meat to chew on his costars, but nonetheless delivers a solid performance. Having to play a considerably less than emphatic character is harder than it seems, but Rea does a decent job and manages to give his character enough credibility that we near fully buy into his somewhat questionable but obviously accepting and forgiving ways. Meanwhile, supporting performances from both Ian Hart ("Backbeat," "Michael Collins") and young Sam Bould ("Hollow Reed") are good, with the former lending the film its limited, but much appreciated comic relief.

Technical credits are first-rate across the board with the film both looking and sounding great throughout. From the haunting score by composer/conductor Michael Nyman ("Gattaca," "The Piano") to the wonderful cinematography courtesy of Roger Pratt ("Twelve Monkeys," "Batman"), and from the period inducing costumes by Sandy Powell ("Shakespeare in Love," "The Wings of the Dove") to the appropriately moody production design from Anthony Pratt ("Michael Collins," "Excalibur"), their combined work elicits the correct mood for this piece.

As does writer/director Jordan who manages to turn what could have otherwise been a standard and uneventful period romantic drama into something far more. While the picture will probably play better to the female half of the audience, most moviegoers will probably find the strong performances and the interesting way in which Jordan tells the story to their liking. We give "The End of the Affair" a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed January 5, 2000 / Posted January 7, 2000

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