[All Spoilers- well known story (book and film)]
Sparked by a character meme going around, I went back to watch the film that first came to mind when faced with the seemingly simple question of, “What three or four fictional characters do you identify with strongly?” Not that I could narrow it down to two or three characters, but some faces flashed up immediately without much thought at all.
It has been a few years, but at a difficult crossroad point in my life I watched this film every few months, as if working on a puzzle. In my case, it wasn’t that there was an affair, or another actual person creating such a contrast, but that my then life nonetheless felt like Sarah’s… lonely though surrounded with others, perfectly fine in many important ways, but, as Bendrix identifies immediately upon seeing her, restless. He attributes much to the context of the war.
This was before I knew the background of Graham Greene’s novel The End of the Affair, and knew that the story was based very strongly on his actual life experience of living with his lover, Catherine Walston, and his lover’s husband… a socially imperfect situation that nonetheless for a time seemed to ensure what was needed for each. I haven’t made a deep study of it, because the novel conveyed his sense of things well, as did the film, though altered. Greene, as an intelligent, wrestling, person of faith, was a master at including this Invisible Character, registering even the subtle effects of belief and disbelief within the flow of characters’ consciences and actions.
For Sarah, God takes form of both savior and destroyer. In Bendrix, an unworthy intrusion. For Henry, a man without passion, God doesn’t register at all. And making the center of the story even more obvious, the insertion of a priest wrestling with his own desire, who seemed to feel the ownership Henry didn’t, with a different justification.
Julianne Moore is perfect in this part, as is the clothing of the time… the tone of a world pretending to continue functioning as usual, though falling apart. And this film was the first time I laid eyes on Ralph Fiennes, before I hunted down nearly everything else he’d ever acted in.
I liked so much about the rhythms of the film, how we begin the story part way through, actually more toward the end than beginning, then look back from Maurice Bendrix’s view first, and through the eyes of his wide-eyed and somewhat bumbling investigator. The case against Sarah is strong, not just the case against her treatment of Henry, but Maurice too. Henry broods over the loss of his comfortable world, but Maurice rages, first against Sarah, channeling his passion.
We get to see the intensity of their love affair in flashbacks of lovemaking (admittedly, filmed too overtly, saw to butter), and to follow the desperation of his doubts and fears, along with her assurances, before they are aware of what is about to happen to their bubble.
Until the day she rejects him at the most vulnerable moment possible, in a way he can’t possibly accept nor understand.
“Do you believe in things you can’t see?”
Then appears to go on with the motions of her life. Until a new piece of evidence arrives. Sarah’s view, in the device of a diary, allows Bendrix to discover her heart along with her unreasonable reasons. With him, we go back into the very same moments, through Sarah’s eyes.
“I wasn’t sure I liked the peace.”
He reaches out immediately, following her into a church, where the Invisible becomes visible. I especially liked that… as though he had been waiting for that one key that he underneath it all knew was coming, to confirm what he could not let go of.
“Each time I tried (to tell you), something would happen.”
I suppose that’s a common fantasy – one more people are actually playing out when their Plan As crumble – returning to their ‘real’ love. Just today a friend shared photos of a couple that “took a twenty year break” but feel they’ve gotten destiny right this time.
I guess the funny thing for me is, I wouldn’t be able to write about my own intimate process with this film and with Sarah, if there were any romantic partner to be careful of. That in itself tempts me to protect the aloneness I also at times, despise…. the emptiness that Sarah says, in the language of the church, God fills with Himself.
“Happiness is harder to write.”
For a moment, they are happy. They live out their life together sharing imagination, over a weekend. Until Henry arrives, not to cause a scene or win her back, but to give bad news. Sarah then calmly references the two vows of her life, one to Henry and one to God.
“See Morris, you may have to keep your promises.”
Within this sorrowful reality, Henry proposes that Maurice move in… that they will care for her in her last days, together. These scenes are quite beautiful… the men embracing, Bendrix bringing Henry tea, the priest coming to visit and being turned away, Bendrix angrily identifying himself as “the lover, Father.”
And there is a small funeral scene that was missing from the book but brings the focus of the film back to faith… not just Sarah’s but now Bendrix’s angry embrace of God “as though You existed.”
I found while re-watching, that the story still has questions for me, although the experience of watching the film wasn’t quite as entrancing. The reds of Sarah’s clothing, and the overall aesthetic, isn’t one I could ever tire of, but the film itself could be finer, more subtle. Actually The English Patient has many very similar themes and captivations, and also more intricate care.