November 19, 2015
End of the Affair, The –
There is a fatal flaw in Edward Dmytryk’s The End of the Affair. It is not the film’s heavy-handed insistence on making character after character closeted believers or its exaggerated conversations about the implications of hating something you claim you doesn’t believe in. It is also not its habit of repeating scenes that often reveal nothing the second time you see them. Rather, it is in its execution of the origins of the affair hinted at in the title, a cardinal sin in a movie of this sort, for if an audience doesn’t buy that, there’s a chance they won’t buy what comes later either.
The film focuses on an affair between Maurice Beatrix (Van Johnson), an American writer in London during the Second World War, and Sarah Miles (Deborah Kerr), the wife of a British government worker played by Peter Cushing. The two are introduced at a party and in practically no time at all, they’re heading off to secluded locations and professing their hopes for a lifetime together. To make such sentiments truly convincing, the films needs for its protagonists to share a moment of such attraction that the audience immediately senses both their uncontrollable urge for each other and their awe at how strongly they feel in such a short time. To the film’s detriment, it give them neither.
Instead, the affair’s inauguration is sloppily depicted. At the party, Maurice sees Sarah steal a clandestine kiss from a male guest. The kiss escapes her husband’s detection, but catches Maurice’s. This hardly seems like the sort of thing that would attract someone, and at first, it doesn’t appear to. Instead, it helps shape Maurice’s opinion of the kind of woman Sarah is, and it is not complimentary. In fact, in their very next meeting, he kisses her, for no other reason than because he thinks he can. Just why she doesn’t slap him and walk out is anyone’s guess. However, in no time at all – just a few minutes of screen time – the two are professing their feelings for each other under some shelter on a rainy night and speaking about how they cannot live without each other. None of these sentiments seems earned. After all, Maurice is a bit of a bore, and Sarah, for her part, is incredibly aloof. And while it is true that aloofness can be attractive to some men, it didn’t seem credible that Sarah’s would unnerve Maurice to such an extent that he would so utterly throw caution to the wind.
The affair continues of course, and then, just as abruptly as it began, it comes to an end. By then, the man Sarah was kissing at the party has long disappeared from the story, her odd behavior with him never truly explained. The reason for this, I suppose, is that Sarah must somehow justify the distrust that Maurice feels from time to time, as well as the immature remarks that he heaves at her, ones that have more than a tinge of jealously behind them. However, the result is that the two never seem right for each other. The best couples talk about things and don’t leave issues unsettled. Maurice and Sarah seem to have little except moments of romance interspersed with sudden flashes of mistrust and pettiness. And there’s too little of the former and much too much of the latter.
The good news is that the second half of the film is infinitely more involving than the first, yet in succeeding at this, it does nothing to erase the bad taste left in the back of your throat during the first half. I say this because Maurice remains the same throughout the film, while Sarah becomes a complete and rather sympathetic character before our very eyes. It is a thing of beauty, yet for the film to work, Maurice would have to change too - he would have to become someone worthy of Sarah’s complete and utter devotion, in short, someone the audience could root for. He never does, and this is a problem, for in the film, we see her incessantly proclaiming that she is wrong for him, when all the while I kept thinking that it is he who didn’t deserve her.
Much could be written about the religious aspects of the film, for what we see is very much a product of its time. Few films like this one would have been able to end much differently in the 1950’s. It was just the wrong time to expect an ending that challenged pre-conceived notions of religion and miracles rather than giving in to them. Curiously, though, the affair in never spoken of as a sin, and I give the film credit for this. An example of supposedly illicit love is depicted not as something wicked or vile, but as something worthy of understanding; the people in it are to be listened to and if possible helped through this difficult period. In a film as problematic as this one, that’s not a bad message to take away. (on DVD)
2 and a half stars