Literary adaptations fail on screen

January 21, 2000

`The End of the Affair'

** ; Rated R

Ralph Fiennes suffers handsomely in "The End of the Affair," Neil Jordan's disappointingly thin adaptation of the Graham Greene novel. With his lambent blue eyes and wan smile, Fiennes makes the screen's most attractive agoniste, the movie star who becomes sexier the more wounded he is. Fiennes' knack for torment -- as well as Julianne Moore in fine Mary Astor mode -- help but don't save this bloodless production, suffused with an air of defeat so thick that the passions that animated Greene's original story -- wherein Eros vied with God himself for the hearts, minds and, most important, bodies of his protagonists -- are all but tamped out.

But where Greene was subtle in his depiction of sexual and spiritual obsession, Jordan is clumsily direct (especially in the sex scenes, played here with tasteless frankness). Where Greene was ironic, Jordan is almost embarrassingly simplistic. Where Greene left the reader with questions, Jordan wraps up the tale in a neatly melodramatic package.

"The End of the Affair" read like a long, anguished prayer, but on screen it looks an awful lot like blasphemy.

-- Ann Hornaday

`Angela's Ashes'

** ; Rated R

As if "The End of the Affair" weren't enough, now comes "Angela's Ashes," the last (please, God) of this season's pretentious, uninvolving literary adaptations. Not that there's anything terribly wrong with Alan Parker's faithful rendition of Frank McCourt's best-selling memoir -- he's enlisted a fine cast of players to re-create McCourt's impoverished Irish childhood, and he takes care to lend a fine sense of detail to the production.

It's just that, as with so many recent literary adaptations, it was the writing that was the art, not its infrastructure of plot and character. In this relentlessly downbeat tale of a woman (Emily Watson in the title role) struggling to keep her family together in the face of crushing poverty, McCourt's indefatigable spirit isn't animated as much as illustrated in a series of vignettes set in an Ireland where love is expressed only for "God and babies and horses that win."

Ciaran Owens and Michael Legge earn their stripes in admirable performances as the author as a youngster and a teen-ager, and Robert Carlyle gives a brave portrayal of their alcoholic father in the florid throes of a cruel disease. Watson is fine too, but she's given a meatier and more watchable role in "Cradle Will Rock." She's poor in that one too, but not as martyred.

-- Ann Hornaday

`42 Up'

***1/2; Not rated (nothing objectionable)

In 1962, director Michael Apted put together "7 Up," a documentary for British television that introduced viewers to a group of 7-year-olds from different social classes and listened as they spoke of themselves, their families, their ambitions and their dreams. Apted and his cameras have re-visited the 14 -- 10 boys and four girls -- every seven years since.

The latest installment, "42 Up," offers some surprises -- one of the boys finally gives up his bachelorhood, while another who had become something of a social recluse has undergone a surprising career turn. But mostly it offers a welcome continuation of what has proven a fascinating journey both for the film's 11 subjects (three of the 14 opted out of the project this go-round) and its audience.

Most welcome of all is the series' willingness to include footage from the previous films, meaning you needn't have seen the earlier chapters to appreciate what's on screen here. Some of the kids have realized their dreams, most haven't, and not all are happy with where they are. One, settled into a career as a cabbie, resignedly suggests he's done as well as he's ever going to do.

But watching how they got there is fascinating enough to warrant marking your calendars now for 2004, when Apted should start work on "49 Up."

-- Chris Kaltenbach

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