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NewCityNet Shades Of Grace

Neil Jordan takes on the talented Mr. Greene

By Ray Pride

JANUARY 10, 2000:  The new year's great romance is about jealousy. Betrayal. Hate. The parts we remember in our own lives.

Jealous of his lover's absence, jealous of her soon-to-end presence, novelist Maurice Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes, fiery and lost to morbid suspicion) is a small-w writer who finds his heart leading him to hatred for capital-G God. Neil Jordan's cuts to the essence of Graham Greene's slim novel, a contemplation of sexual longing and of religious faith, which announces itself as "a diary of hate." During the worst bombardments of the Blitz on London, Bendrix kindles an affair with Sarah Miles (Julianne Moore, feral with want), the bored wife of his civil servant friend, Henry (Stephen Rea, a sorrowful spaniel who sees the world too clearly and not at all). Darkness embraces Maurice and Sarah. Bombs blow outside but the world is limited to their assignations in Maurice's plush bed.

But an explosion that injures Maurice leads to a mysterious shift in Sarah's feelings: she won't see him any longer. Two years later, as the film begins, Maurice and Henry meet in a sodden rainfall; Henry suspects his wife of infidelity and asks Maurice to help discover who she's seeing.

While Jordan repeats incidents from the novel from multiple perspectives, it's a sharp, gorgeous distillation. Jordan, 49, who's written novels and short stories, as well as the scripts for most of his films, prides himself on essential storytelling skills. "It's not the longest book in the world!" Jordan's Irish brogue and occasional mumble mask his piercing intelligence. But he can talk. While a film offers you the chance, as in a novel, to experiment with time shifts, Jordan has another take. "What was great about doing the adaptation was that there's one pivotal event which changes everything. It's actually a very ironic dramatic structure he set up, old Greene. He was a very clever kind of dramatist as well as anything else." He's fond of the opening. "I mean, the way the story opens with the two kind of rivals meeting on the heath, and the husband asks, of all people, his wife's ex-lover to find out who's she's been unfaithful with. It's full of irony and multiple interpretations and once you start on that track, the dramatic structure of the movie becomes this kind of kaleidoscopic examination of a series of the same events. It's chancy to do in a movie, but I found it beautiful."

While other filmmakers have followed the lead of "Pulp Fiction" to leap at will, "The End of the Affair" is more compact than the films that followed Tarantino's. "Very short," Jordan says. "You've got to learn how to tell a story, I think. It's about storytelling, really, no matter what else you do [on screen]. That's the problem I think with a lot of these movies, people aren't bothering to tell us the basic issues, what the thing is about."

Jordan has shown, since his second feature, "The Company of Wolves," a fondness for the most elemental kind of storytelling, the fairy tale. (While flawed, Jordan's release from earlier 1999, "In Dreams," boasts one of the most sophisticated fairy-tale worlds seen in a thriller in ages.) His partiality to the most stringent of narratives works smashingly in this very adult, potentially bleak material here. "There was a decision to be made with regard to this. I suppose you can take a novel like this, say it's about the Second World War, the Blitz, yeah. It's about adultery; it's about these three characters. There's always a temptation when you're doing a movie to broaden things out. Directors love stuff, don't they? Anything to do with shit happening, you know what I mean? I could have broadened the scope of the movie to show a broader picture of society at the time, and other such stuff. The whole thing of a city being bombarded from the sky. But in fact, it was actually the entire concentration, my entire efforts were put into making things smaller and smaller and smaller, because it wasn't about [all that]."

Jordan's stroke of inspiration is to make a single bedroom, inhabited under the cloak of the blackout, stand in for all the bedrooms at that time. Jordan laughs. "Absolutely!" He reflects that a lot of children were born in the months to come. "A lot actually, a lot. They had a lot of sex then."

Everyone seems to have a fevered inner world. "It's because they all need to know, isn't it, really? Bendrix is absolutely consumed with the need to know. They hire Parkus, a lovely character, that guy. He's kind of a servant of the greater drama, an observer. He wants the outcome to be somehow pleasing and moral."

But Jordan laughs at the ideal of his being considered a moral tale. "The great irony of all about this—that Greene, he's a wicked writer—the great irony was actually that this enormous war happened just to have this relationship occur! There was a great pleasure in that as a director, actually. I was just showing things out of the corner of the window while two people are making love, y'know."

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