On the surface, "The End of the Affair" is a love story, infusing elements of obsession and jealousy. But against the background of World War II during London's Blitz, love gets taken to the ultimate extreme, and destiny's hand takes hold.
It was this precise spin that drew director Neil Jordan to first adapt, then direct the film. The director of films such as "The Crying Game" (for which he won a screenplay Oscar) and "Interview With a Vampire" read Graham Greene's novel back in high school but began to think of it as a movie when he reacquainted himself with the text five years ago.
"It was fascinating stuff," the 49-year-old director says, relaxing in a whiskey bar at the Sunset Marquis Hotel & Villa. "The combination of sexuality and mysticism. It's a detective story ... and the central relationship is seen from the man's point of view, and then from the woman's point of view."
The film's central character is also a writer, who takes out his frustration on a typewriter as he tries to figure out what went wrong in his abruptly ended love affair with a married woman.
"I remember very strongly the feeling ... being in a room with the typewriter and reinventing your world and bits of your world that had gone from the page," Jordan says. "One of the things I definitely wanted to put in there was this world of this obsessive writer trying to re-create this affair that had ended."
Ralph Fiennes, who plays the novelist, "is perfectly designed to play a figure who's involved with scenes of loss, tremendous loss in his life. I can't think of a better actor to play the disenchanted intellectual of the '30s and '40s," Jordan says.
Casting the adulteress role of Sarah was a greater challenge. Julianne Moore had written Jordan a note about the film expressing interest while she filmed "An Ideal Husband" in England. Jordan says he had long admired Moore's range and talent but had some concern about her playing English, although she took on the accent for "Ideal Husband." But after a screen test with Fiennes, Jordan decided that she was "staggeringly good."
For the role of the husband, Jordan turned to Stephen Rea, who had starred in seven previous Jordan films. The "thankless part" required an actor with Rea's subtlety and power, according to Jordan, and their previous relationship and trust allowed them to turn the character into something more substantial.
"By the end, he emerges with an enormous dignity in a way," Jordan says, "and he begins to feel for the first time. In Stephen's hand, the part became really fascinating."
The three actors form the film's love triangle, inspired by Greene's own passionate affair with an American woman who was married to a "very, very dull Englishman" and to whom he dedicated the book. Jordan said Fiennes prepared for his role by poring over Greene's letters.
"It caused quite a shock at the time," says Jordan of the affair. "It was about their experience during the Blitz in London, when bombs were falling all around, people's lives were totally transformed. ... They never knew when they woke up the next day whether they'd be alive or dead. So they did more extreme things than you'd do in normal circumstances."
In this case, Maurice Bendrix (Fiennes) is badly injured when a bomb strikes his home after a rendezvous with Sarah (Moore). Thinking he is dead, she prays for his survival. In exchange, she promises to break off the affair. When he miraculously rises, she flees the scene, cutting off contact and leaving him bewildered. This spiritual ingredient forms the central dilemma to the film, and to Jordan, who was raised Irish Catholic but doesn't consider himself a religious person, it was the most fascinating aspect.
"It's a love triangle, but it's actually a quadrangle," Jordan says. "And there's one corner of it that may or may not exist. ... This woman made this promise in the most extreme circumstance of her life. She sees her lover dead -- and then she's forced to keep it. To me, it was the question: What would the world be like if we were actually forced to keep the promises that we make? That's what I regarded as a puzzle and the challenge of the movie, really."
It's also a challenge to Bendrix, whose obsession with Sarah leads him to hire a private detective two years after the affair, wondering why their romance ended and who is to blame.
"He's eaten up with jealousy and wants to find out this figure that has claimed her," Jordan says. "Through the story, he finds out actually what has claimed her is something much bigger than he ever thought existed, and he goes from hating a human being to hating destiny itself. ... He's an atheist, a nonbeliever, ... but the level of hate is such that he almost brings this thing into existence. I think it's a fascinating journey that he goes on."
Certainly not the average romance, particularly with God and war in the picture, but Jordan says the film holds up fine with a '90s audience.
"Love triangles, adulterous affairs," he notes. "I think those kind of things are perennial, and if a story is good, it lasts for all time."