(director/writer: Neil Jordan; screenwriter: from the novel of Graham Greene; cinematographer: Roger Pratt; editor: Tony Lawson; cast: Ralph Fiennes (Maurice Bendrix), Julianne Moore (Sarah Miles), Stephen Rea (Henry Miles), Ian Hart (Parkis), Jason Isaacs (Father Smythe), James Bolam (Savage), Samuel Bould (Lance Parkis); Runtime: 109; Woolley/Columbia; 1999)

“The film, as well-conceived as it was, was still too laborious of a process.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

It’s a rainy night in London in 1946 and two distinguished looking men, old acquaintances, meet. One invites the other home to talk about something that is troubling him. That person is Henry Miles (Stephen Rea) who is a wealthy, high-level bureaucrat in the ministry office. His friend is a writer, Maurice Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes), who knew him in 1939 when he used his character for a story he was writing and was at the same time having an affair with his wife Sarah (Julianne Moore). The opulent Miles’ home brings back to Bendrix the passionate memories of Henry’s wife. His affair with her suddenly stopped for no reason that he could determine in 1944, after London was bombed in an air-raid and the couple just finished making love.

Once in the house, Henry discloses he thinks his wife is having an affair and he was thinking of going to a private investigation service to have her followed. This arouses a jealousy in Bendrix, who offers to go to the agency for Henry. When Henry refuses the offer, Bendrix goes without telling to the Savage agency and hires the private detective.

Neil Jordan (“The Crying Game”/”The Butcher Boy”) has brought to the screen Graham Greene’s very personal and passionate 1951 novel, which is in many ways autobiographical. It’s a mid-forties period piece about his illicit romance that also questions his Catholic faith, in which he is a convert to. Though in this big-budget mainstream film Fiennes’ characterization of him is as a Protestant while Sarah is the Catholic convert, whose mother gave her that religion hoping that she would accept its belief in prayers and miracles and not be influenced by her non-believing Jewish father. Graham, known to be a subtle anti-Semite of the T.S. Eliott kind, is determined as he always is to get his digs in at the Jews.

The story is really about the battle in Greene’s head; he is the carnal Protestant but, on the other hand, he is the Catholic (through Moore’s character) believing in a non-physical love with God. There seems to be a war going on inside him that has nothing to do with the war England is currently fighting.

What is presented onscreen is an intelligent but somber look at how the three main characters cope with their uneven lives and manage to act so civilized when feeling so much pain at finding their lives to be unresolved.

The film is a constant flux between flashbacks and what is current. We first see Bendrix at his typewriter, writing about hatred. He feels betrayed that Sarah left him and despite their many happy days together, he is filled only with pain. When he meets her, on the spiral staircase of her home, for the first time since she left him, he remembers making love to her. But, he acts coldly when she goes to greet him as he hurriedly leaves Henry’s home.

When Sarah calls the next day, they make arrangements to meet at a bar they once frequented. Their meeting is a troubled one because Bendrix can’t hide his hurt and she can’t tell him what is on her mind and so she gets upset and darts out of the restaurant, going into the Catholic Church to pray. Bendrix hears about her movements as he is visited in his humble but studious abode by the private detective Savage assigned to his case, Parkis (Ian Hart). At first Parkis doesn’t recognize that it is him that he tailed, but when he does he is apologetic. Bendrix’s gumshoe uses his son (Bould) as an apprentice; the young lad, with a birthmark that covers a whole side of his face, proves to be a capable helper. They do a thorough job of tracking down Sarah discovering that she meets with someone called Smythe (Isaacs), whom they will later discover is a priest.

The director repeats scenes he already shot hoping to get each person’s perspective. The most momentous day for the lovers and the film’s highlight scene is the last time Bendrix had sex with Sarah, during the air-raid, when the doorbell rang in Bendrix’s house and he went down the stairs to answer it and the bomb hit. Thinking he was dead Sarah prayed to God, promising that if Bendrix was alive she would thank God for that miracle and leave Bendrix and she would only love God. Thus one’s religious belief becomes the film’s laborious theme, the war inside herself between her Catholic faith and her physical love.

Henry is played by Rea; he’s a good-hearted but joyless soul, whose marriage is based on kindness and friendly gestures but not on passion. The ultimate insult the cuckolded husband receives is when he returns home and the lovers are into their climax, with Sarah screaming out as Henry climbs the stairs and Bendrix asks: “What if he heard us?” And Sarah exclaims: “He wouldn’t recognize the sound.”

Fiennes is emotionally all carnal love and jealousy, they seem to go together for him. He plays the role in an old-fashioned romantic manner. Sarah is the woman who was awakened to carnal love, in a role that calls for open sex, showing the reason for her love affair with Fiennes being so hard to forget. She has ultimately learned to accept the religious message of a spiritual love as a higher one, one that is eternal, where love does not have to be materialized and is quite willing to forego earthly love. Miracles are part of her faith, as she can live contently with her beliefs in religious dogma. Julianne Moore was able to mix the fire in her character with her newly acquired serenity, making her performance sublime.

What’s astonishing about Jordan’s direction is the nostalgic mood it sets. It dares the viewer to believe that this genteel love story could also be so daring in its passions and challenging in its arguments about jealousy, carnal love, and religious faith. It is through Greene’s own words where he relates how much more difficult it is to talk and write about happiness than it is about pain that one can understand how the Moore role is most likely to be believed only by a true believer, someone who understands that words are inadequate to relate the joy she felt.

The film, as well-conceived as it was, was still too laborious of a process. I think the story would have had more tension to it, if Henry wasn’t such a wimp and put up some kind of fight for his wife.