The Greene Mile

The Greene Mile

The Greene Mile

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Dec. 10 1999 3:30 AM

The Greene Mile

Neil Jordan fluidly orchestrates The End of the Affair; Stephen King's syrupy mysticism strains patience.

The End of the Affair
Directed by

Neil Jordan
Columbia Pictures

The Green Mile
Directed by

Frank Darabont
Warner Bros.

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Ralph Fiennes makes me think of a line from A Midsummer Night's Dream: "That is hot ice and wondrous strange snow." His piercing blue eyes signal anger or torment while his manner stays glassy and querulous. This aloof, slightly inhuman mix of traits somehow suited both the insubstantial martyr of Quiz Show (1994) and the Nazi sadist of Schindler's List (1993). (In the latter, his deep voice sounded great with a German accent, at once oily and metallic.) But Fiennes is truly in his odd element as a Graham Greene hero in Neil Jordan's fluid adaptation of The End of the Affair. He plays Maurice Bendrix, a self-centered novelist who embarks on an opportunistic but increasingly incendiary romance with Sarah (Julianne Moore), the wife of a bland civil servant named Henry Miles (Stephen Rea). This happens during the London blitzkrieg, and the German bombs both heighten the passion (all rules are suspended) and underscore the hopelessness: As Maurice becomes more possessive, Sarah begins the inexorable Graham Greene-ian drift into self-abnegating Catholicism. Fiennes is superb at jealousy, and even better when he has to fulminate at something so intangible and yet (to Greene) so irrefutable as the existence of God. He looks enraged at having reached the limit of his spiritual resources, and his haggard self-doubt humanizes him.

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The movie doesn't capture all aspects of the novel, but that hardly matters: It's middling Greene. The author barely bothers to characterize England under siege (he was more evocative when his settings were farther from home, as they almost always were); and the last third--in which the atheistic Maurice has his face rubbed in the rightness of Sarah's faith--feels like a denouement, not a climax. The glory of the book--of most of Greene's books--is in the dialogue, in which all that vague spiritual yearning coalesces into candor so biting that it still has the power to shock. Wounded lovers dismiss each other with compact fury, while the fiercest insults are reserved for representatives of a God who has let despair run riot. Greene's dialogue is already close to great screenwriting, and Jordan edits and orchestrates it with masterful cunning.

More important, he distills from the novel a mournfully wry fable on the all-consuming convolutions of jealousy. We meet Maurice two years after his entanglement with Sarah has (abruptly) ended, but an encounter with her husband--forlorn and hatless in a deluge, convinced that his wife is holed up somewhere with a lover--brings the green-eyed monster (as well as a host of memories) back with a snap. It's the ex-paramour, not the husband, who hires a detective agency to dog the mysteriously wayward Sarah, and--in one of those ironies that feels delightfully postmodern--it's Maurice himself who ends up being trailed by a Cockney gumshoe, Parkis (an amusingly earnest Ian Hart), when Sarah reinitiates contact. The story touches on sex farce, but only briefly: This is a tale in which every possessive human act ends up driving the heroine closer--both spiritually and literally--to God. The movie is a religious conspiracy disguised as a romance.

Jordan's mysticism isn't on the surface, the way it is in some of his other films, but in the recesses. He and his cinematographer, Roger Pratt, have loaded the screen with shadows--not the hard-edged ones of film noir but a sort of existential (English) smudginess. The textures are muddied, the palette damp. It's as if the light has had to pass through layer upon layer of dust and fog, so that only the faded yellows, oranges, and the occasional green of some wallpaper register amid the ashy grays. You can't make this world seem too welcoming or the characters will lose the incentive to seek out a better one. That means freezing rain, cheerlessly crabbed interiors, and lots of extras who visibly live lives of quiet desperation. The effect of so much misery isn't narcotizing, however. Jordan, like Greene, is too sensitive to his characters' vexations--to their colorful spasms of pique. His heroes don't go mutely; their souls scratch and kick.

Julianne Moore is especially raw: Her whitish, faintly freckled complexion affords her no protection from the elements, worldly or otherwise. When Maurice questions Sarah's love while bombs drop nearby, she responds by screwing him harder, her bare breasts looming over him, imperious yet vulnerable as the plaster dust rains down. This is one of Moore's soft-hair performances. I tend to prefer the straight-hair ones--the razor's-edge hysterics of The Big Lebowski (1998), The Myth of Fingerprints (1997), and the upcoming Magnolia--although her soft-haired repository of environmental poison in Safe (1995) is probably her most amazing work. I love everything she does, but I wish that Jordan hadn't left her so exposed. He misdirects her in her big scene, in which a bomb falls on Sarah and Maurice's love nest and her response to his apparent death spells the end of her earthly happiness. Moore internalizes the emotion a shade too much, and her lack of urgency amid the rubble borders on camp. It's a mark of her stature that another potential camp moment doesn't bring the house down: the line "It's only a cough"--never a happy portent in a love story.

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At first, Rea's hangdog persona struck me as overly pitiable for Henry: A more repressed, formal Englishman would make his wife's open disregard seem less cruel. But Greene intends an element of cruelty, and Rea's blurry bewilderment is finally moving. You can see why even a cold fish like Fiennes' Maurice would feel compelled to take care of him. In a late scene, the husband invades the lovers' seaside idyll, which is an impulse that might seem out of character for Henry and that isn't in the book. Jordan has lifted the idea from another Greene work. Since Greene would juggle the same motifs for the rest of his life--the triangles, the bonds between cuckolds and lovers, the self-sacrificing renunciations, the use of birthmarks to indicate spiritual blight, the insistent pull of Catholicism--Jordan's interpolation seems not an impertinence but the highest form of respect. On their first date, Maurice takes Sarah to the cinema to see an adaption of one of his novels and has to shield his eyes from the coarseness of it. I think if Greene took a date to see The End of the Affair he'd say: "The bloody cheek! I didn't--oh--hmmm--that's very good. That's very good, indeed."

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B y contrast, Frank Darabont's three-hour adaptation of Stephen King's serial novel The Green Mile is superficially respectful but ultimately cruel: He exposes the work as hooey. Actually, not all of the movie is melodramatic, pseudo-mystical drivel--only about two hours and 15 minutes.

That leaves a stately 45 minutes in which the texture of Depression-era life in the death-row wing of a Southern prison is richly evoked. The rhythms are leisurely but fraught--even the most casual exchanges carry an awareness of the electric chair nearby. The day before an execution, the condemned man is sent away and a surrogate (Harry Dean Stanton) does a dress rehearsal. "Walkin' the mile …," repeats the old man as he and the guards troop down the corridor--known as the Green Mile for the color of the floor--to the chair, in which he's elaborately strapped, offered an opportunity to make a final statement ("Sorry for all the bad shit I done"), and mock-dispatched. When the surrogate makes a sick joke and the guards erupt in laughter, the head guard, Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks), silences them worriedly. He says they shouldn't make jokes because the next day, when a man will actually die, they might remember the joke and not be able to stop from cracking up. That rebuke is a wonderful piece of writing--it establishes both Edgecomb's watchfulness and his decency. The movie is full of details like that: Its attention to rituals that other films don't have time for gives it surprising power. And its episodic construction--which mirrors King's novel--is a relief from the beeline structure of most big-budget thrillers.

The Green Mile also features a giant, mentally slow "Negra" under sentence of execution. John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan)--note the initials--was found clutching two bloodied little girls and wailing that he "tried to take it back, but it was too late." About an hour into the picture he grabs Edgecomb through the bars, puts his hand against the man's crotch, and generates a mystical white light; he then exhales a swarm of evil-looking black particles that dissipate into the ether. Edgecomb's bladder infection vanishes. Eventually, these kindly white Southern death row guards sneak their pet J.C. on all kinds of useful errands, including one to the home of a terminally-ill, bedridden white woman, over whom the black giant hovers in a miraculous inversion of a Southern rape fantasy.

Other writers have influences; King has nothing but influences. The gentle giant plays with a tiny mouse--Of Mice and Men. The stricken executioner gets blessed by his beatific sacrifice--Billy Budd. You could add a score of prison movies, along with E.T. (1982), Starman (1984), and even some vigilante pictures. (J.C. evidently isn't opposed to capital punishment as long as it's the evil people who get punished.) King isn't a cynical writer: He recycles these elements as if he has true faith in the power of his fables to heal. But I find his storytelling both morally easy and artistically promiscuous. The Green Mile is a fat old whore who thinks appealing to an audience's most self-congratulatory instincts--stroking it until it goes blind--is a public service.