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Familiarity breeds triumph

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Karen Butler

When it came time to cast the part of Henry the cuckolded husband in his new World War II love story, "The End of the Affair," Irish writer/director Neil Jordan looked no further than his

long-time friend and collaborator Stephen Rea.

"You need somebody very secure in their talent to play that kind of role," the 49-year-old Sligo native said. "Only Stephen could have played that part . . . and he made something of it very interesting — because his perception was that his class, his accent, even his clothes — he was a person of some style.

"It was a real challenge for Stephen, but he manages to bring Henry off sympathetically without putting the other characters in a bad light."

"The End of the Affair" is Graham Greene’s semiautobiographical novel about a passionate woman, Sarah Miles (played in the film by Julianne Moore), in a sterile marriage. She is immediately attracted to brooding novelist Maurice Bendrix (played by Ralph Fiennes) when they meet at a party given by Sarah’s worthy but unexciting civil-servant husband, Henry. Sarah and Maurice begin a passionate love affair. But during the Blitz on London, Bendrix’s house is hit by a bomb while the couple is in

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bed, and he is nearly killed. Inexplicably and without warning, Sarah breaks off the relationship. They reunite briefly, but their affair ends again, this time tragically.

The story is inspired by Graham’s adulterous love affair with American Catherine Walston, who was married to a wealthy farmer. The book is dedicated to her. Jordan says he read the novel years ago and fell in love with its three main characters because they are so complex that the reader is sympathetic to them all. He also recalls

having been intrigued by how three people could view an affair so differently.

"Greene is so bloody clever," the filmmaker remarks. "He presents this story about this love affair and all of these secrets and events that are seen from two totally different points of view with two totally different meanings. And I thought, ‘If that’s not

cinematic, I don’t know what is.’

"One reason I liked the story was the fact that there’s this huge

war going on and that liberates something in [Sarah and Bendrix.] You really only glimpse the war through the bedroom [window]. So, on one hand, it kind of liberates them in a strange way. People do strange things in wartime, don’t they? They’re thrown into

strange places together. And that was the history of London during the Blitz. I think people, in a strange way, found an extraordinary liberation that brought down the class barriers. They had to deal with bombed-out sites together, sleep in the same shelters."

The director of "The Butcher Boy" and "Michael Collins" says he has wanted to make a film version of the book for about a decade now, but was sidelined by other projects. Once signed on to make the movie for Columbia Pictures, he set about finding the ideal cast to bring the passionate story to life on screen.

"As a director, if you cast a film correctly, I find there’s very little for you to do," he said. "In other words, I’m just almost invisible with regards to the acting. I’m never saying, ‘Do this, but repeat that’ or giving line readings. I don’t do that type of thing. Whereas if you cast a movie with something askew then you have to work your

butt off because you’re trying to compensate [for bad casting decisions]."

Making character multidimensional

Although Fiennes and Moore were enthusiastic about their roles, Rea admits it took him a while to warm up to the idea of playing Henry.

"It’s not like a part I’ve played before," the 50-year-old Belfast native and veteran of eight Jordan films said. "It was difficult. Who wants to play a cuckold? So then I had to think about — like all characters — what you can find sympathetic in him. He seems to be a

good man. He seems to be an honorable man and most people would attack the woman for leaving, but he looks into his own heart and realizes he’s not the right husband for her. His pain is very genuine."

Rea points out that a story is much more interesting when the characters exhibit a range of traits and emotions, not just the obvious ones.

"I resisted the idea until I could see how I could make him more than just a dreary little cuckold," he said.

He went on to say that he likes Henry because he understands his own feelings and remains kind to his wife even after he learns she has betrayed him.

Rea acknowledges that had his character in the movie been an American instead of an Englishman, he probably would have beaten Bendrix up for courting the woman he loved.

"Neil and I used to laugh about it in ‘The Crying Game’ when the character discovers that the woman [he loves] is a man," Rea said. "This little Irish guy goes in the bathroom and starts to vomit, whereas if Robert DeNiro had played the part, there would have been blood everywhere.

"The Irish have this reputation for punching out people in bars and it’s simply not true. It all comes from [film director] John Ford. I never saw a fight in a bar in my life in Ireland, ever."

Jordan said he thinks Henry’s seemingly restrained reaction to his wife’s affair is a powerful part of the story.

"As a director, it’s wonderful to work with that sense of understatement because actually it’s a beautifully cinematic tool," Jordan said. "If you have people say so little on the screen everything else comes to mean so much — all the gestures, the faces, the rain.

As for why he keeps choosing to work with Jordan, Rea said simply, "I can throw myself into his hands. . . . There isn’t another director in the world I’d be that vulnerable to."

Jordan says that when he finds a great actor like Rea and develops a working relationship with him, he likes to use him in his movies again and again. He adds that many of the roles Rea has played in his films were written specifically for him.

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