Thursday, August 13, 2009

The End of the Affair (1955, 1999)

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene (1904-1991) is a 1951 novel that became the basis for two films: one in 1955 and the other in 1999.

The story line of the novel is this: in London, in 1939, Maurice Bendrix, a British novelist writing a book about a high level civil servant, looks for such a character to study in real life. Thus, Bendrix becomes acquainted with Henry Miles and his wife, Sarah. Almost immediately, Bendrix and Sarah embark on an adulterous affair that continues for several years, during which Bendrix reveals himself as a jealous and possessive lover.

In 1944, Bendrix and Sarah are together in Bendrix’s rented room when a bomb strikes. Bendrix appears to be dead. Sarah prays and promises God she will leave Bendrix forever if he is spared. Bendrix comes back to life and Sarah is left with a promise she must either honor or abandon.

Sarah leaves Bendrix without explanation and they remain apart for two years. Then Bendrix has a chance encounter with Henry who confides he is worried that Sarah is having an affair because of her frequent absences. Jealous of the lover who has supplanted him, Bendrix hires a private investigator to have Sarah followed.

Barkis, the awkward but lovable investigator, and his young son, conduct a bumbling investigation that initially results in the false conclusion that Sarah is indeed having another illicit affair. In reality, she meets for a time with an atheist who fails to convince her that coming to faith is folly, while at the same time she is being drawn more deeply into her relationship with that most ardent and most jealous Lover of all lovers.

Sarah frequents a Catholic church, spending time in reflection. In tentative moments that perhaps only a convert can appreciate to the fullest, she makes certain material moves toward the Faith. She writes in her diary:
“. . . I did what I had seen people do in Spanish churches: I dipped my finger in the so-called holy water and made a kind of cross on my forehead.” And, “Yesterday I bought a crucifix, a cheap ugly one because I had to do it quickly. I blushed when I asked for it. Somebody might have seen me in the shop. They ought to have opaque glass in their doors like rubber-goods shops. When I lock the door of my room, I can take it out from the bottom of my jewel-case.”
Ultimately, Sarah seek religious instruction from a Catholic priest. Meanwhile, Barkis manages to purloin Sarah’s journal, which explains why she left Bendrix after the bombing, and Bendrix reads it. Once he realizes what occurred, Bendrix is determined to win Sarah back. Bendrix reaches Sarah by telephone but by then Sarah has committed to making her separation from Bendrix permanent. She is also ill with an upper respiratory infection. Sarah tells Bendrix that she cannot see him, that she is ill, and that if he comes to her she will evade him. Bendrix disregards Sarah’s wishes and her illness and goes to her home. Sarah flees. With Bendrix in pursuit, Sarah hurries through a rainy night to a Catholic church where Bendrix confronts her. Sarah convinces Bendrix to leave and remains in the church despite her illness. As a result of the exposure to the cold and rain, Sarah’s illness deepens into pneumonia and within days she dies, repeatedly asking for a Catholic priest.

With total disregard of his role in causing Sarah’s death, Bendrix continues to oppose Sarah’s new Lover, managing to prevent a Catholic burial even after the priest who had begun instructing Sarah tells Henry that Sarah could have a Catholic funeral because, “We recognize the baptism of desire.”

After Sarah’s cremation, Sarah’s mother reveals to Bendrix that Sarah had been secretly baptized into the Catholic Church as a two-year-old, although Sarah herself did not know it. After learning this, Bendrix says to the God he does not believe in, “You can’t mark a two-year-old child for life with a bit of water and a prayer. If I began to believe that, I could believe in the body and the blood.”

Within weeks of Sarah’s death, Barkis’s son is healed from a serious illness after being given one of Sarah’s old children’s books. And, the atheist Sarah had been visiting is healed of a disfiguring facial birthmark after he sleeps with strands of Sarah’s hair pressed to his marred cheek. Ultimately, Bendrix recognizes that Sarah must have obtained these favors from her Beloved. Nevertheless, Bendrix still wants nothing to do with Him.

Except for Sarah’s diary, the novel is written from Bendrix’s point of view. On the first page, Bendrix writes, “this is a record of hate far more than of love”. The novel ends with Bendrix praying, “O God, You’ve done enough, You’ve robbed me of enough, I’m too tired and old to learn to love, leave me alone for ever.”

The 1955 film stars Van Johnson as Maurice Bendrix and Deborah Kerr as Sarah Miles. Johnson seems entirely too American in every respect to be believable as the Englishman, Bendrix, although he is convincing as a possessive lover and a selfish, arrogant unbeliever. Deborah Kerr, a Scot, does fine portraying an Englishwoman being brought to faith. She is far less credible, however, as a woman whose erotic desire for Bendrix is so powerful that relinquishing it constitutes a major sacrifice.

Although the correspondence of the 1955 film to the novel is less than a hundred percent, and the film has many defects, it is reasonably true to the book. The film has no bedroom scenes, nudity, vulgarity, or violence. Although the film portrays an adulterous affair, it does not portray the affair in a positive light. Obviously, though, this is not a film for children or young teenagers.

The 1999 version is so graphic in its portrayal of the sexual relationship between Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes) and Sarah (Julianne Moore) that it should not be viewed by anyone. (I had to skip over large portions of the DVD and would not have even tried to view it if I had known in advance about the content.) In any event, the 1999 film departs from the book so significantly that the meaning of Greene’s story is entirely lost.

Video cover of 1955 film, from Wikimedia Commons. Copyrighted material. Fair use claimed.

NB: This review has been edited since its first publication.

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