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On a rainy London night in 1946, novelist Maurice Bendrix has a chance meeting with Henry Miles, husband of his ex-mistress Sarah, who abruptly ended their affair two years before. Bendrix's obsession with Sarah is rekindled; he succumbs to his own jealousy and arranges to have her followed. Written by
Look at the comments on this site. There's pretty much a perfect split between people who think the film is unrelentingly dull with no redeeming features, and people who think the film is an amazing achievement. I fall into the latter category, and can't for the life of me figure out the former.
This is not an action film. There is no violence. There are no thrills, chills, spills, or anything along those lines. There are three terrific characters, there is an amazingly romantic relationship, and there are superb performances. There is a wonderful director who keeps everything tightly reigned in. There is nothing superfluous in this film. It is perfect.
Maurice Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes) is a novelist who meets beautiful Sarah Miles (Julianne Moore) at a party hosted by her husband Henry (Stephen Rea), whom Bendrix is researching for a book. In no time at all, Sarah and Maurice begin a tempestuous and passionate affair which continues through World War II, until Sarah breaks it off suddenly after an air raid which nearly took Bendrix's life. A chance encounter with Henry two years later brings Bendrix and Sarah together again, and they rekindle their affair as the truth about that air raid is revealed.
A nice enough story on its own. But what makes this film great is the approach that Jordan takes (or perhaps it's not his approach... I'm not familiar with either the novel by Graham Greene or the 1955 film). The opening line of the film is typed by Bendrix onto a clean sheet of paper: "This is a diary of hate." It is only at the end of the film that the viewer understands who it is that Bendrix hates, and why. The story is a dramatization of what Bendrix is writing.
First, he tells us about 1946, when he just happened to see Henry walking in the rain. It's this moment that opens the door for Bendrix, and for us, into his own past. Then Bendrix proceeds to interweave his recent experiences of 1946 with events that transpired during the War. That gives us three distinct time frames for the film, which are introduced to the viewer in reverse chronological order.
Also, it is useful to remember that everything we see on screen (with the exception of several scenes of Bendrix typing away) is a depiction of what Bendrix writes. The entire film is told from Bendrix's point-of -view. This allows us two things: 1) more intimate access to the inner workings of such a fascinating character, and 2) it allows us to enjoy the mystery element of the story much more. If you'll notice, all of the best mysteries tend to have single-character POVs. Look at Chinatown, or The Maltese Falcon. Splitting the POV tends to give audiences information which they should not get before the main character does.
Not that this film is a mystery. There is a mystery in it, which is central to the plot and to Bendrix's situation, but I wouldn't call the film itself a mystery.
What makes this film great is its understatement. It is a very English film, and the characters and performances are all very English. Emotions are fiercely felt but subtly expressed. That makes it highly demanding of its audience, but even more rewarding. It also explains why so many call the film boring. Sarah was described as an ice queen in one review here, and Bendrix was called shallow. Like most reviews (including this one), those comments say a lot more about the people who wrote them then they do about their purported subject. Sarah is intensely passionate, Bendrix is a layered and complex character.
So, not for all tastes, but a brilliant film. Better than any and all of the Best Picture noms of 1999.
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