A dense adaptation of one of Graham Greene’s most acclaimed and complex novels scored two nominations at the 72nd Academy Awards. Although it lost in both categories, it remains one of the most faithful adaptations of the writer’s work, a major achievement for writer-director Neil Jordan and a showcase for stars Ralph Fiennes, Julianne Moore and Stephen Rea.
The film opens in 1946, when novelist Maurice Bendrix (Fiennes) runs into an old friend, Henry Miles (Rea), who confides his concern that his wife (Moore) is having an affair. This comes as shock to Bendrix, who had had an affair of his own with Moore during World War II that ended abruptly when he was wounded in an air raid. Bendrix hires a private detective (Ian Hart), who uncovers surprising revelations about his own affair with Moore that make him see his former lover in an entirely new light.
Greene had based his 1951 novel on his own affair with Catherine Walston, whom he was still seeing at the time of the book’s publication. The novel is also informed by his troubled relationship with the Catholic Church and is considered the fourth of his “Catholic novels,” following Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory and The Heart of the Matter. The book was met with almost universal praise on its publication and is still considered one of the best novels written in English.
Independent producer David Lewis acquired the film rights in 1952 and produced an adaptation with Edward Dmytryk directing Deborah Kerr, Van Johnson and Peter Cushing as wife, lover and husband, respectively. That version met with mostly negative reviews, particularly complaining that the novelist protagonist had become an American so the role could be given to Johnson, whom most critics found too shallow for the role. Nor did it help that Columbia Pictures had recut the film, which originally was to employ Greene’s flashback structure, to tell the story in strict chronological order.
Jordan adhered much more closely to Greene’s novel, with the necessary compression to keep the film to a managable running time (102 minutes). Fiennes seemed the perfect choice for the male lead because Jordan thought he “would convey that disenchanted, embittered 1940s intellectual” (Jordan quoted in The End of the Affair, British Film Directory). He was considering Miranda Richardson and Kristin Scott Thomas for the role of Sarah when he received a letter from Moore asking for the part. He agreed to test her, and the test won her the role. Casting Rea as her husband was a natural choice. The two had made seven films together since Rea had starred in Jordan’s directing debut, Angel (1982), with The Crying Game (1992) their most famous collaboration.
Jordan wanted Elliot Goldenthal, who had worked with him on four other films, to write the score, but Goldenthal was committed to scoring Titus (1999) for his frequent collaborator and partner Julie Taymor. John Barry composed a theme for the film on spec, but Jordan ultimately chose Michael Nyman to do the score. Nyman incorporated phrases from his third string quartet. He would later use parts of the score in his 2005 album The Piano Sings.
The film met with mixed reviews. Janet Maslin of The New York Times called it “intoxicating…the best and most graceful Greene adaptation since The Third Man….this is one more intelligent, brooding love story with a secret twist, and he [Jordan] easily carries the viewer along for the ride.” In contrast, Roger Ebert awarded the film only two-and-a-half stars and called it “as hangdog as Stephen Rea’s face in the first scene. It is the story of characters who desperately require more lightness and folly….” Variety’s Emanuel Levy praised the film and the performances of Fiennes, Moore and Rea while also suggesting that “Strong critical support will be crucial for broadening the appeal of his ultraromantic period drama….”
With only mixed reviews however, the film failed to break even at the box office, grossing just under $11 million dollars against a $23 million budget. Although Jordan’s screenplay won the BAFTA and an Evening Standard British Film Award, it was an also-ran where U.S. awards are concerned. It was nominated for Best Motion Picture — Drama, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Score at the Golden Globes and lost in all four categories. Oscar nominations went to Moore and cinematographer Roger Pratt, but they lost to Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry and Conrad Hall for American Beauty respectively. One award the picture captured in the U.S. was Best Eyewear, given by GQ Men in recognition of the glasses Fiennes wore in the picture.
Producers: Neil Jordan, Kathy Sykes, Stephen Woolley
Director-Screenplay: Neil Jordan
Based on the novel by Graham Greene
Cinematography: Roger Pratt
Score: Michael Nyman
Cast: Ralph Fiennes (Maurice Bendrix), Stephen Rea (Henry Miles), Julianne Moore (Sarah Miles), Heather-Jay Jones (Henry’s Maid), James Bolam (Mr. Savage), Ian Hart (Mr. Parkis)