Combustible Celluloid

Neil Jordan


by Jeffrey M. Anderson

Neil Jordan is not a talkative man. My carefully chosen questions were meant to illicit a chatty response, but Jordan would not take the bait. Still, as we talked at the Ritz hotel during a press tour for his new film The End of the Affair, starring Ralph Fiennes, Julianne Moore, and Stephen Rea, it became clear that Jordan was quite passionate about his movie, even if it didn't show.

Jordan has been a favorite of mine for some time. I admired The Company of Wolves (1983), Mona Lisa (1986), The Crying Game (1992), and Interview with the Vampire (1994). But it wasn't until The Butcher Boy (1998) that Jordan showed us what passion, confusion, and anger were really all about. It was an astonishing achievement and the best film of 1998, even if it was overlooked by the Oscars.

What I liked about The End of the Affair was its quietness. The whole movie is told in shadows, in the rain, and in whispers. Jordan refused to show giant, melodramatic moments drenched with drippy music. "There's a temptation to do that. It's very interesting. I think that temptation is really to relate to a younger audience. There's a constant temptation to somehow pretend things aren't what they are. Everybody wants to make serious movies or movies about novels with rich themes, but they always mess them up, don't they? Because they try to broaden it out or cheapen it."

Since The End of the Affair is a war story, Jordan should especially be commended for keeping bravado and propaganda out of it. "The second World War blitz allowed this relationship to happen. For one thing, it threw people out of their normal environments. It threw different classes together. For another thing, it kind of made people feel like they'd die tomorrow, so they did stuff they never would have done in their normal lives. That was the nature of this relationship. It was enabled by the fact that bombs were falling. If I'd switched the action to the Normandy landing, I think it would have been a bit of a disappointment."

The End of the Affair was previously made into a movie in 1955, starring Deborah Kerr, Van Johnson and John Mills, and directed by Edward Dmytryk. Jordan took a look at it before shooting his new film. "You have no idea how bad things can be," he moans. "People say that movies now are not like they used to be? Go back and look at that movie. That's the way they used to be. They didn't know what was going on. It was bizarre. Poor old Greene. He's a great novelist. But they haven't made the best movies."

"There's no point in making a film out of a great book," he continues, "the book's already great. What's the point? But in this case, there was something embedded way down in this novel that was really highly textured. It's an unusual story. The idea of having this love triangle and this man obsessively imagining this lover and to find out the lover has this very tangential existence at best. It's fascinating to me. It was like a lovely puzzle."

Jordan illustrates with an example, "If you were having an affair, with, say, your friend's wife, and you had to meet her... cross the street in San Francisco where you knew you wouldn't be observed. And you went to meet her one day, and she walked across the street and got his by a truck. And you say, first of all, 'oh God... I hope she's alive.' Secondly you say, 'I'm never ever going to do this again.'"

The End of the Affair is Jordan's eighth movie with actor Stephen Rea. Though he denies having any special bond with the actor, Jordan does have high praise. "The thing about Stephen is that he's intelligent. He does less than any actor I know. There was a scene I was doing in "The Butcher Boy". If you've got a crowd scene, the actor who does the least is the one that gets the camera [steals the scene]. I could see all the different actors trying to do less than Stephen. But none of them could. He was doing almost nothing and he was the center of the whole thing."

Jordan doesn't think of his movies as tragedies. "They're kind of tragic comedies. My temperament is Irish. Dark and sick. That's what we are over there. The Butcher Boy was kind of a comedy, no? You couldn't bear that movie if you didn't laugh."

November 30, 1999

Movies Unlimtied