Tales from the heath

Film - Jonathan Romney on sex and bombs in wartime Clapham Common

How true to the text does a literary adaptation need to be? If the original is a novel about infidelity, then surely it's quite proper that a film should cheat on its source. Yet perhaps it takes a certain sort of cheating, a thoroughgoing formal boldness. If, on the other hand, you aim for a realistic evocation of a book's imaginative world yet make wilful narrative changes, as Neil Jordan does in his version of Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, then you might be justly accused of cheating not so much the book as the A-level students who may be using your film as a revision crib.

Jordan's film is a dutiful, honest rendering of Greene's 1951 novel - up to a point. It renders the place and period, wartime London, atmospherically but concretely; it honours its characters and gives them a plausible inner life and dignity; it even attempts to preserve the novel's complex structure of flashbacks and repetitions. It's serious, solid Greene - until Jordan decides to make the story fit the requirements of upmarket art-house romance.

Both novel and film are narrated by the novelist Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes), who recalls his affair with Sarah Miles (Julianne Moore), the wife of a stolid civil servant (Stephen Rea, giving his usual melancholy a rich new inflection of staid English gravitas). Obsessively angry at the affair's abrupt termination, Bendrix contrives to put a detective on Sarah's case; he assumes that she left him for another man, but discovers that the truth, a matter of sacrifice and religious faith, is more complex and ultimately more painful.

If it's the job of a literary adaptation to make you think that's exactly how you imagined it, then the film's first half is very good. Jordan avoids the gorblimey Blitz cliches and makes Greene's theatre of amorous war, centred around Clapham Common, drably unpopulated, the workaday place where literary passions would brew. Some critics have found Fiennes bloodless as Bendrix, but you can believe in his self-consumed, cerebral dandy in bookish solid fabrics. Moore is less convincing, doing a Meryl Streep routine with her vampishly sensual Home Counties accent. The grist of her performance is in the lascivious intelligence of her looks during the affair: the film capitalises fully on the fact that it is obliged to communicate through looks and carefully posed gestures, where the novel can simply imply passion and its movements.

You also believe in these poised, articulate people having hot, urgent sex: reckless screwing as the bombs drop, a tussle on the floor while a husband is walking up the stairs. The book must have seemed shocking, as well as truthful, in its time; today we may be even more alarmed to imagine that sex, let alone adultery, went on in 1940s Britain at all. No wonder the censors gave the film an 18 certificate: not for the sexual content itself, one imagines, but because the flesh is framed by sensible ration stockings and trouser braces.

The film is good on the hypocritical seediness that Greene limns around English sexuality: a meeting with James Bolan's horribly delicate detective agency head is a grim evocation of our culture of "discretion". But when Jordan, in the film's second half, attempts to recast the story for contemporary sensibility, then things go wrong. The couple, foiled by providence in the book, here gets a second chance in the form of a romantic sojourn in Brighton, as if today's audiences could only countenance an affair with a fully romantic pay-off to offset the Catholic anguish.

But, for Greene, the point is that Bendrix and Sarah always have to reckon with a jealous God, with whom she makes a pact of sacrifice after Bendrix is caught in a bomb blast (the blast is Jordan's show-stopper, a slow-motion routine that too literally plays up the notion of fall from grace). Jordan ruinously irons out the kinks in Greene's religious thematics. In the novel, Sarah has a sort of confessor in reverse: Smythe, a committed atheist who she hopes will offer instruction in rejecting God. But Jordan's Smythe is a personable young priest, while the facial blemish that torments Smythe in the novel is here transferred to a schoolboy, leading to a pay- off that is conventionally sentimental, to say the least. Greene ends with an agonised Bendrix entertaining the possibility that he may yet come to believe in the possibility of miracles; Jordan ends by suggesting the possibility of a miracle, quite simply.

It's a subtle difference, but a crucial one, and it inflects our understanding of what the whole story is about. The novel is about how faith affects, even tarnishes, earthly love. The film is simply about love, and the theological underpinning is reduced to religiose flavouring. Sarah ends as an elegantly ailing tragic muse bathed in ennobling light. (And doesn't Jordan just know how lightning suits Moore's profile?) Bendrix may feel agonised straitened emotion (Michael Nyman's score is sharply suggestive of passions surging against the straitjackets of Englishness and intelligence), but he is never allowed the more complex fury and intellectual contradictoriness that make up Greene's Bendrix. In fact, you suspect, he's probably not half the writer.

"The End of the Affair" (18) opens 11 February nationwide