Deborah Kerr gave so many excellent performances throughout her film career, but one of her very best performances can be found in the British film The End Of The Affair. This film is notable for showing the same event from two different perspectives, and it is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Graham Greene, which was published in 1951. The novel is partly based on Greene’s own love affair with Catherine Walston, and the novel is dedicated to her.
The film is directed by one of my favourite Noir directors Edward Dmytryk, and you could say that the film bears a resemblance to Noir in some scenes thanks to the lighting and use of shadows. The film is very well written by Lenore Coffee(Footsteps In The Fog). At first glance the film appears to unfold as a pretty standard romantic drama, but you soon realise there is so much more going on in this film than just passion and a love affair. This isn’t your average boy meets girl story. The film tackles the deep and complex issues of having faith, atheism,the none existence or existence of God, guilt, jealousy and loss. The film is also pretty daring for the time in how it pushes as far as it can against the film Production Code of the time. A good example of this is the scene where Maurice and Sarah star kissing after leaving a restaurant. This scene leaves little to the imagination as to what is about to happen between the two next. Gazing at each with great desire, Miles huskily whispers to Sarah ” I can’t take you home yet”. “No” she replies. Miles hails a taxi and tells the driver to take them to a hotel. You know what they are going to go and do. I get goosebumps during that scene due to the sexual tension flying between the two.
Many consider the earlier British film Brief Encounter as the definitive love affair film, but this one is certainly up there with it too. This film has all the emotion and complexity of the relationship depicted in David Lean’s film,but The End Of The Affair goes further by showing the couple actually giving into their love and desire and allowing themselves to become sexually involved. We also quickly realise that they are in love and that their relationship is not just one of sex and lust. They want to be together and be happy, and we want them to be happy too.
The End Of The Affair is set in London at the height of the Blitz of WW2. Lonely American writer Maurice Bendrix(Van Johnson)is living in London. He has been discharged from the army after being injured in the leg. Maurice is considering writing a book about a civil servant, so he makes the acquaintance of a civil servant by the name of Henry Miles(Peter Cushing) in order to do research for the book.
Maurice falls in love with Henry’s wife, Sarah(Deborah Kerr)and the two embark upon a passionate affair. Their attraction may start off as one of sexual desire, but it quickly becomes clear that there is also a real emotional attachment there too. Maurice finally feels complete and wanted when he is with Sarah. She feels brought to life in a way she hasn’t been before. Neither can bear to let the other go. During an evening when Maurice and Sarah are together, Maurice goes downstairs and is injured in a bomb attack which nearly kills him. Maurice is distressed when Sarah puts an end to their relationship and cuts off all ties with him on the same night. He becomes convinced that she didn’t really love him and that she may even have taken up with someone else. When the film later shows us this same event from Sarah’s perspective, we quickly learn how wrong Maurice is in his assumptions.
After Maurice was caught up in the explosion, he was trapped beneath a door, and when Sarah goes down to check on him she’s convinced he was dead. In her despair she offers up a prayer to the God who she doesn’t even believe in to spare the man she loves, but the catch is she says that if he is spared she will no longer see him. A few minutes after that prayer/promise has been uttered, Maurice regains consciousness and comes upstairs to Sarah, who is shocked and devastated to say the least. What confuses her even more is when he says he feels as if he has just been pulled back from a long trip he can’t remember. Does this mean he really did die for a few minutes and was brought back by God? Or is it a coincidence and he was just unconscious and just feels weird when he regains consciousness? Sarah cleans Maurice up and then leaves.
This is where the film gets really interesting. Sarah is then crippled by guilt and despair about what she has done to Maurice, but she is also struggling with whether or not she believes in God after all. She is in crisis and becomes deeply shaken and confused. The morning after the explosion she comes across a Catholic Priest(the excellent Stephen Murray) helping people in a bombed out street not too far from his church. She follows him back to his church and seeks his help and guidance.
Deborah is excellent in the church scene. She utterly convinces as the numb, confused, exhausted and distressed woman grappling with something far beyond her understanding. Your heart goes out to her because of how tormented she is. She uttered her prayer/wish because she loves Maurice, but now she feels bound to honour her promise to give him up if he lived. That’s enough to tear anyone apart and mess them up.The Priest can see how troubled Sarah is and one of the things he says to her is “I don’t see that you have any problem. If you made a vow to someone you don’t believe in”. He’s quite right and the truth of his words certainly give her an out. The trouble is she is being drawn more and more to feeling that she believes there is a God and therefore she fears breaking her word.
Next she seeks out Richard Smythe(the very underrated Michael Goodliffe), a known atheist who regularly speaks in public in the city about God. Smythe tells her “You mean above all the bombing and cries of men in battle, some supreme being heard your little cry of help?” That line always hits home because it raises the issue of if such a being does exist, why doesn’t it help everyone? Why does it demand that we love it unconditionally? Why does it allow so much suffering, hate and misery? Why doesn’t it show itself to everyone so there is proof it exists? Why does it demand people follow its rules or risk eternal punishment for not doing so? Why must some people face life long unhappiness and even be at risk of death because they endure hate and exclusion by certain religious groups because of what sexuality or gender they happen to be?
The atheist views of Smythe also make me think of all the people in the world who have given up or fought against something they want, something which brings them great happiness and joy, all because in the Bible it says that thing is a sin, or that it isn’t deemed acceptable. How many unhappy and abused wives have been forced over the centuries to stay with a cruel husband because the marriage vows were deemed sacred and unbreakable? While Sarah isn’t abused, she is in a loveless marriage and she finds a brief escape with the man she has an affair with before Maurice. In the form of Maurice however, Sarah finds more than physical pleasure, she finds the first man she is truly in love with, and he is in love with her in return. Don’t they deserve to be happy together? Isn’t it more dishonest for her to stay with Henry and make out she loves him for the rest of her life when she doesn’t? True he is a decent man and cares for her, but they are not in love and he is rather distant.
I like how the film also shows that one can become religious at any point in life, even if for most of your life you haven’t been a person of faith. The only thing that I don’t think is fair, is the inference that Smythe(representing the atheists amongst us)only holds the views he does because he is a bitter and damaged man who has suffered because of the terrible birthmark on his face. It makes out that an atheist can only possibly be an atheist because they’ve been hurt, asked/prayed for help, and found no help came to them so they don’t believe in God out of spite. I don’t think that’s true or fair at all, and quite frankly that seems like a way to just dismiss the opinions of those who don’t believe what the religious masses choose to believe. I’m an agnostic. It is a fact that the truth of the matter is none of us will know whether there is or isn’t life after death until the second we actually die.Either we will go into a sleep from which we never wake, or something else will happen and we will go to another place. Quite how people can claim that they know for a fact there is or isn’t an afterlife or a God has always made me laugh. None of us will know until we take that one way trip which we are all destined to take at some point. Just try and be a nice and decent person throughout your life. The character of Henry seems to be of a similar way of thinking on this to myself. When asked by Sarah what he believes in, he says “It’s all quite simple really. One just does one’s best”. What more can you do?
Deborah is excellent as Sarah and really does some of her very best work in this film. She steals every scene with just a look. I’m always impressed the most by her physical transformation from an elegant, happy, outgoing young woman, to a troubled and ill looking woman who is ironically now living a hellish existence because of her new found belief in God. She looks beaten down and worn out. Remarkable acting by Deborah.
Van Johnson is equally good and it’s a credit to him that he doesn’t seem pushed aside on screen once the focus turns to Sarah’s internal struggles. Maurice undergoes almost as much change as Sarah does. Van is tender and passionate one minute, jealous and angry the next, confused and devastated the next. The scene where he reads Sarah’s journal and finally understands her story and what she has been going through, absolutely destroys me. Van’s acting in that scene is all in the eyes, and he absolutely nails how heartbroken and moved Maurice is at what he is reading. Van and Deborah make a great pair and I wish they had worked together again after this.
Peter Cushing isn’t in the film very much, but he is terrific when he does show up. He makes Henry come across as a nice man who finds it really difficult to open up and really share how he is feeling. You can see why Sarah likes him but isn’t in love with him.
John Mills is good as the private detective hired by Maurice to trail Sarah. His presence and personality certainly lighten the film up a bit when he appears. It’s always struck me as a bit odd that he was cast in this role though. John was a major star at this point and the role wasn’t very big, so one wonders why he was cast.
Both Stephen Murrary and Michael Goodliffe are excellent in their small, but very key roles. Both me are two of the finest character actors our country has ever produced. I’m always most struck by Stephen’s subtle performance.
This is a film that I love a great deal. Not only is it a touching love story, but it’s also far more thought provoking and interesting than a lot of other films have managed to be.I also like that it offers viewers with different views on God scenes which will speak to them and them alone. Highly recommended to fans of anyone in the cast, but especially to fans of Deborah and Van.
This is my entry for my second Deborah Kerr Blogathon being held today here.