In 1945, Britain gave us what is surely the most polite movie ever made about adultery – ”Brief Encounter,” the tremulous Noel Coward weepie in which the spectacle of stiff upper lips kissing seemed to take all the guilty ”ill” out of illicit. I thought of that film as I watched The End of the Affair, Neil Jordan’s scrupulously faithful adaptation of the 1951 Graham Greene novel, which is said by many to be his most autobiographical.
It’s not that the movie is too refined (at times, it’s actually rather sexy), but that this luxuriously mounted World War II melodrama has so much more on its mind than the usual ripples of lust, ardor, and jealousy that describing it as a mere love story simply won’t do. How often, after all, do you get to see a tragic romantic triangle in which the principals are a man, a woman, and God?
The man is Maurice Bendrix, played with smoldering delicacy by Ralph Fiennes. He’s a prominent London fiction writer who, in the summer of 1939, falls into an all-consuming affair with Sarah Miles (Julianne Moore), a woman whose fiery nature matches his own, but who has the bad luck to be married to Henry (Stephen Rea), a dull-as-a-doorknob civil servant.
As the season’s official literary romantic sob story, ”The End of the Affair” will inevitably be compared to ”The English Patient,” but Fiennes balances torment and shining-eyed yearning with less of the masochistic dourness that weighed him down in that top-heavy art mosaic. Moore, with her melancholy maternal softness, has a piercing and tragic presence. For all that, the movie, as handsomely shot and beautifully acted as it is, begins to grow remote just when it should be haunting us with its civilized passion.
Jordan works in a tasteful and seductive middlebrow style, but it’s almost too conventional a mode to support the film’s central, sleight-of-hand religious twist. Inevitably, Greene’s gilded Catholic anguish, with its mystical underpinnings, feels more stagy and contrived on screen than it did on the page. (For the rare man/woman/God triangle that’s as transporting as it is far-fetched, watch ”Breaking the Waves.”) The affair itself, in its genteel way, does catch fire, but it’s the end of the affair that needs to move us to rapture, and the movie, instead, just drifts away.