There’s not many Certificate 18 films in my collection, which I like to think is more of a reflection on my total lack of capacity for horror or violence rather than any particular prudishness. It’s actually quite difficult to get an 18 rating for sex outside of actual porn, it seems – you can have any number of fuzzily lit bedroom scenes complete with clenched jaws and bulging forehead veins without unduly bothering the censors (though it helps if they’re heterosexual, of course), and when you see a film like Danny Boyle’s Trance starring a lovingly rendered slow pan up Rosario Dawson’s naked body – entirely naked, you understand, given ladies who choose to eschew even a token tuft of pubic hair somehow manage to be an actual plot point (the Hollywood wax being particularly aptly named here) – and realise it merited only a 15, you have to wonder what it would take to get bumped up. (The answer being, of course, full frontal male nudity, which still makes the Film Certification Board come over all unnecessary in the manner of a Victorian lady in need of a fainting couch and explains why in the same film all you get of an equally naked Vincent Cassel on screen is a coy glimpse of his right calf).
So what does this tell us, except that I need to do more research before choosing movies suitable for first dates? Perhaps only that The End of The Affair is something of an exception to this rule, managing to be a classy British costume drama with its fair share of RADA talent and no obvious frontals of any nature at all which still manages to have been promoted straight to the top of the ratings board. Quite an achievement.
This contradiction is perhaps reflected best in the bastion of reliable, clearheaded and intelligent film criticism that is the Netflix reviews section. “HOT HOT HOT” begins one delighted viewer, whilst the next one moans “Cold, dreary, boring.” Even allowing for the wildly swinging barometer that is internet commentary, this is oddly polarising stuff. So which is it?
The original Graham Greene novel the film is based on seems in some ways even more old-fashioned than its 1951 publication date suggests. It’s his last ‘Catholic’ novel, questioning the influence of an unfeeling God in ordinary lives and the possibility of miracles through rather overwrought melodrama and high emotions stuffed into terminally uptight post-war English souls. The movie translates this slightly more palatably for a modern audience with religion represented by Jason Isaacs’ humourless priest, a compressed menu of miracles and a very slightly more equitable ending (‘happy’ isn’t quite the right word). Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore (giving impeccable English as she gives impeccable everything) are novelist Bendrix and Sarah, lovers already estranged when the film opens in 1946. After meeting at a pre-war party given by Sarah’s sad-sack civil servant husband Henry (try saying that five times fast), they quickly became lovers and spent the majority of the blitz shagging intensely through the doodlebugs, before Bendrix’s near miss in a bomb blast drives Sarah inexplicably and apparently irreversibly away from him. The film is occupied with unravelling the reason for their original estrangement after Bendrix, two years after the original affair, suspects Sarah is once again cheating on her husband and becomes consumed with jealously and obsessed with discovering the truth.
So yes, obviously there’s quite a lot of sex, in between all of the rain soaked melancholy and people eating lunch very delicately with long pauses for unspoken longing and dingy rented digs suffused with unfiltered tobacco smoke and the sound of typewriters with slightly sticky keys. But whilst it might be trying to demonstrate the mind-altering chemical rush of pure lust, it’s still the only film I can recall that involves sex in dressing gowns (Julianne Moore is permitted a tasteful nip-slip; Fiennes remains primly belted throughout). It’s also reasonably realistic in that it’s slightly awkward, sofas are trickier to navigate than they initially seem, underwear is fiddly and everybody’s O face looks slightly gormless, like their brains have temporarily dribbled out of their ears.
So far, so not particularly racy, though the Netflix commentators would disagree, particularly whichever viewer primly noted “This movie should be listed as pornography…a good story ruined as family entertainment by the director’s assumption that adults today need to receive regular guidance on how to perform the sex act”. I can think of better options for sex-ed than this, though in fairness at one point you do see the Fiennes arse mid-coitus (surprisingly fleshy, for those keeping up at the back). But there’s little to reconcile this with the reviewer who said “Awful. No excitement, little action. We turned it off after 8 minutes”. (As an aside, eight minutes?? Tough crowd).
On a rewatch, I can appreciate the film is not for everyone. (“The affair ends. SO WHAT??” demands one reviewer plaintively). The melodrama and endless introspection of Bendrix in the original book has been retained and it’s difficult to maintain your sympathy as he wanders around patronising Sarah’s husband (played with the mournful dignity of an aging bloodhound by Stephen Rea) and the ineffectual private detective he hires (Ian Hart, always amazing at being excruciatingly awkward), being a massive snob at all times even while considering himself separate from the conventions of upper middle class marriages (“Strange how much dignity there can be in a hat. Without it he seemed like one of the anonymous, the dispossessed”) and being a total bitch to Sarah to cover up the fact he’s never actually managed to get over her. (“Is the new book about us?” she asks over a miserable reconciliation lunch. “A book takes a year to write” he snaps back. ‘”It’s too hard work for revenge”). All the voiceovers addressing a God he would prefer didn’t exist and the possibility of Sarah somehow being able to perform miracles sit uncomfortably with a modern audience (and possibly also with Greene himself, who shortly afterwards left the theme behind and started turning out rather more hard-boiled classics like The Quiet American and Our Man in Havana). Most damningly of all, the movie cliché of anyone coughing in the first reel being not long for this world (see also: Moulin Rouge) is present and correct.
Still, I love it enough to own it, and still rewatch on certain solitary Friday nights when high drama in rainy London streets (a visual look that should be called ‘misery noir’), ten pounds of high emotion tightly contained in a five pound bag and excellent costuming seem attractive. “I came here for the hot bucknekked sex, stayed for the excellent story. Funny how that worked out” notes one Netflix reviewer in a refreshing comment amid all the gleeful appreciation of Moore’s breasts (“I’ll never think of Julianne Moore’s nudity as gratuitous” reads one, generously). The twist that is the reason Sarah left Bendrix the first time around is clever enough to build the backwards-and-forwards narrative around, and for all his infuriating introspection, Bendrix makes a compelling narrator, banging out a novel a year in his bachelor flat, determined to be the cynical outsider while trying to work out how one woman has left him so entirely consumed by obsession even years after he last saw her.
The sheer Englishness of the whole thing is interesting given it’s directed by an Irish man (Neil Jordan, more famous for mixing politics and subverted gender norms in The Crying Game and Breakfast on Pluto) and has Irish and American actors making up two thirds of the central triumvirate. Perhaps it needs something of an outsider’s eye to explore what happens when the sheer volume of repressed emotion becomes too much for the standard English male’s body to fully contain.
Much is made of big emotions in this film – jealousy, revenge, desire, guilt. But most of all, I love the interplay between Bendrix and Henry, which is a tiny, subtle portrait of male friendship and support during an era when lines dividing middle class men were never more strictly drawn. The scene between them on a park bench in the pouring rain is a perfect example of the English as icebergs, with nine-tenths of all of emotion held firmly under the surface and an angry, frightened, vindictive, self-pitying, bitter, desperately sad conversation is held in the same tone one might use to discuss the latest cricket score.
By the end of the film the trio have moved in together as an unconventional household during Sarah’s decline (“I thought she was in love with someone, but never with you. The funny thing is, I’m glad it was” says Rea, breaking your heart with his eyes). The development of the relationship between Bendrix and Henry away from cuckolder and cuckolded is beautiful in its restraint, the complex underlying emotions represented by the former lover of a dead woman bringing her prostrated widower a glass of milk and two digestive biscuits being the closest thing to a declaration of platonic love that can be made between two straight English men. “To be is to be perceived” says Bendrix to Sarah at one point and this, in the end, is what he and Henry are doing for each other after Sarah’s death – observing each other, recording the tiny events of their lives, noting each other’s continued existence.
I leave the final word to my favourite Netflix reviewer of all who notes sagely, “It was the black and white ‘real life’ pictures that made the picture real. I really hope that couldn’t have occurred, but you never know unless you were there during the Holocaust.” For the regular Netflix viewer, one Ralph Fiennes wartime drama is, after all, much the same as another. I would like to think that somewhere amongst the solemn plaudits for Schindler’s List lies a heartfelt note of appreciation for Julianne Moore’s tits. But that’s an adventure for another day.
All screengrabs © Sony Pictures via Cinemagia