18 March 2000 | Philby-3
In Greeneland, God writes the punchlines
This film tells the story of a wartime love affair between Maurice, a successful, cynical and rather callous novelist, and Sarah, the beautiful but neglected wife of a dull senior civil servant. She tends to believe in the supernatural, he does not, but both are spurred on by the danger of both discovery and the bombs raining down on London. Perversely, when her husband confides to Maurice his suspicion that Sarah is having an affair, Maurice hires a private detective to investigate, in effect, himself. In the end, it is God who decrees the finale, not the characters, who accommodate as best they can to their destinies.
Do we really care? This is not easy to answer. Maurice, the narrator, is a prize prick, unfeeling of others, concentrated on his misery and his work, yet obsessively jealous. Sarah provides a focus for his substantial sex drive but he does develop an affection for her. Sarah, on the other hand, clearly likes a good bonk as well, but she needs the relationship to full the void left by her husband's emotional absence, and Maurice is too self-centred to be a real soulmate. She is also quite a nice person in comparison with nasty bitter old Maurice. So yes, we are sorry for her. We have to admire Maurice for being honest enough to tell the story but there is an air of self-flagellation about it.
As a film, this is a terrific piece of work, directed by the Irish director Neil Jordan who was responsible for "The Crying Game". Greene is a very cinematic novelist - at last count there were at least 40 screen versions of his works - and Jordan has very cleverly used a present - flashback - present and then forward technique to tell the story from both Maurice's and Sarah's viewpoint. The gloom and danger of wartime London is effectively invoked but there was a bit of overkill in having it rain almost continuously from 1939 to 1945 (London has less rain days than Sydney!) It struck me early on that Ralph Fiennes was by no means inevitable in the part - I was reminded of the early Sam Neill. His character is really rather empty - a man whose only real commitments are to his work and sex. Julianne Moore, delightfully bad as Mrs Cheveley in "An Ideal Husband", and delightfully slapstick as the childish Cora in "Cookie's" Fortune", is much more sympathetic here. Stephen Rea (a Jordan favourite) as the cuckold is the most sympathetic of the lot or at least the most self-aware. He gives us a wonderful portrayal of stitched up dismay and yet it does not seem beyond the bounds of credibility that, knowing of the affair, he should invite Maurice to come and live with them towards the end.
Greeneland is a pretty bleak place, but a couple of apparent miracles brighten things up. Greene clearly thought God had a sense of humour. The novel is said to be semi-autobiographical, but the real affair Greene had with the wife of a wealthy businessman, while no doubt equally painful, did not end so melodramatically as the novel. Looking at a biography of Greene by Michael Shelden I note that Catherine Walston, whose relationship with Greene was the chief inspiration for "The End of the Affair," died in 1978, aged 62, 13 years before Greene. According to Shelden, Catherine refused to see Greene on her deathbed because she didn't want him to see how sick she was. The affair itself petered out in the early fifties, though they remained in touch. Henry Walston, it seemed, asserted himself and demanded that Catherine cut down on her contact with Greene. Greene went overseas to find danger and forget, to Vietnam and elsewhere, and these trips produced at least one more major novel, "The Quiet American." However Greene's career as a writer peaked with "The End of the Affair." His later work is interesting and readable, but never again did he reach the same emotional depths and heights.
Greene is often said to be a Catholic novelist but on the basis of this work at least he wasn't a great pitchman for the Almighty. Greene was, however, an eloquent portrayer of spiritual suffering and this aspect has been effectively brought to the screen by Neil Jordan. Perhaps it takes an Irishman to understand an English Catholic.