Speaking British

Thomas Jones

  • The Third Woman by William Cash
    Little, Brown, 318 pp, £14.99, February 2000, ISBN 0 316 85405 0
  • Greene on Capri: A Memoir by Shirley Hazzard
    Virago, 149 pp, £12.99, January 2000, ISBN 1 86049 799 3

Graham Greene converted to Catholicism in 1926, after coming down from Oxford, allegedly on ‘intellectual’ grounds, though it also conveniently meant he was eligible to marry Vivien Dayrell-Browning, whom he had met as an undergraduate when she was working in Blackwell’s bookshop. His adoptive faith didn’t begin to manifest itself very strongly in his writings, however, for another dozen years. In 1938, after Brighton Rock was published, Greene went to Mexico as a journalist to report on the religious persecution there, an experience out of which came both The Lawless Roads (1939) and The Power and the Glory (1940). It was also at this time that he began his relationship with Dorothy Glover. Faith and sex are inextricable in Greene’s work – the whisky priest in The Power and the Glory is a father in more sense than one; Scobie in The Heart of the Matter (1948) is driven to suicide by his faith and his unwillingness to repent of his adultery – but the entanglement is knottiest in The End of the Affair (1951).

The novel concerns the aftermath of a relationship between the narrator, Maurice Bendrix, a novelist, and Sarah Miles, the wife of a civil servant, who live on opposite sides of Clapham Common. The framing narrative is set in 1946, when Bendrix and Sarah haven’t seen each other for 18 months. They had met in the summer of 1939, and were lovers until Bendrix nearly died in a bomb-blast in June 1944 and Sarah abruptly and without explanation broke off the affair. Now, many months later, Bendrix bumps into Sarah’s husband on the Common. Henry Miles confides that he has doubts about Sarah’s fidelity, and has considered employing a private detective to follow her; Bendrix is inspired to have her watched himself. Parkis, the diligently incompetent investigator he hires, gets hold of Sarah’s diary: reading it, Bendrix discovers why she abandoned him. The central section of the book is a transcript of the diary.

The novel’s dual perspective – Bendrix’s narrative and Sarah’s diary – is one of its obvious attractions for a filmmaker. There’s plenty of opportunity for showing reverse-angle replays of scenes that are told from both points of view, one of the few aspects of the story that Neil Jordan exploits to full effect in his film.

One of the most famous ‘moments of cinema’ of the last ten years is Dil slipping out of her dressing-gown in Jordan’s The Crying Game to reveal that she is a man. It’s almost as memorable as the appearance of Harry Lime, suddenly lit up in a doorway in The Third Man (not least because most viewers will have spent the previous hour waiting for it). There’s an equivalent moment in Jordan’s adaptation of The End of the Affair. Sarah is kneeling at the bed, praying for Bendrix to be alive, when, through the open door behind her, we see him, out of focus, emerge from the dust of the bomb-blast. The shot is well framed – Roger Pratt deserves his Oscar nomination for cinematography – and the scene is much the most powerful in the film. It almost makes Michael Nyman’s hyperbolic score (the music in Planet of the Apes is subtle by comparison) tolerable. In all such scenes of epiphany (Charlton Heston breaking down at the sight of the half-buried Statue of Liberty at the end of Planet of the Apes is another) the impact of the revelation, not actually a revelation at all, is fuelled by our anticipation. What is different in The End of the Affair is that Bendrix’s entrance was never meant to be a surprise: we have already witnessed it from his point of view. The surprise is Sarah’s prayer. One tragedy evaporates as another condenses in the pause between Sarah promising the God she doesn’t yet believe in that she will never see Bendrix again, if only he is allowed to live, and the moment his form appears to solidify out of the dust as he comes into focus; everything is suspended in the wordlessness (it would be silence were it not for Nyman’s droning strings) between her prayer and his calling her name.

At no other point does the film come close to reproducing the urgency of the novel, its trajectory of failure. Before and after this pivotal moment, the film is uncertain of what to do with the events of the novel. It chops impatiently through the opening scenes to get the affair up and running. When, in the novel, Bendrix asks whether it’s ‘possible to fall in love over a dish of onions’, you suppose it is: the point is carried by the lean strength of the prose. Also, it’s Bendrix and Sarah’s second date (they kissed on the first). After the onions question, the novel continues:

I put my hand under the cloth and laid it on her knee, and her hand came down and held mine in place. I said: it’s a good steak,’ and heard like poetry her reply, ‘It’s the best I’ve ever eaten.’

There was no pursuit and no seduction. We left half the good steak on our plates and a third of the bottle of claret and came out into Maiden Lane with the same intention in both our minds. At exactly the same spot as before, by the doorway and the grill, we kissed. I said: ‘I’m in love.’

‘Me too.’

The way the beginning of the affair is telescoped in the film makes it risibly implausible. It’s their first date, they haven’t kissed yet and they don’t have the exchange about the meat. Ralph Fiennes, looking bored over their steak and onions, says to Julianne Moore: ‘I’m in love, you know.’ She, equally wooden, tells him that she is, too. (Moore, who can be very good, seems to be concentrating so hard on her accent that she forgets to do any acting – her Oscar nomination for ‘Best American Actress Speaking British’ is sadly unsurprising.)

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