'The Affair': Film Review

The Affair
Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment
Elegant but uninvolving.

The star-crossed love between married friends (Carice van Houten and Hanna Alström) plays out against decades of political upheaval in an English-language drama from Czechoslovakia.

A real-life architectural gem is the centerpiece of The Affair — and, in many ways, its most compelling character. The building is a modernist masterpiece, completed in 1930, when the term "modernist" embodied the thrill of risk-taking in a new age.

As in the movie's source material, Simon Mawer's 2009 novel The Glass Room, the house is a hilltop construction of clean geometric lines, designed to hold light, and its changes in ownership over the years map out the tumultuous history of 20th century Czechoslovakia. Abstract concepts and aesthetic ideals kick-start the handsome yet muddled feature, but, as the English title suggests, romantic melodrama is the main event.

In adapting Mawer's Booker Prize-shortlisted novel, director Julius Ševčík and screenwriter Andrew Shaw streamline its surfeit of incidents to focus on just a few of the characters and storylines. Even so, and even with ace editor Jaroslaw Kaminski (Ida, Cold War) on board, the film has more drift than drive. The unconsummated attraction between best friends played by Carice van Houten and Hanna Alström clearly is meant to be its emotional pulse. Yet however sensitive the two leads' performances, The Affair rarely gathers the necessary intensity.

As the drama opens, the women are young and fabulously glamorous. Liesel (Alström) is newly married to the dashing Viktor Landauer (Claes Bang, The Square), while Hana (van Houten, of Game of Thrones) moves through the world with vivacious, unconventional independence. (When and how her husband, Oskar, played by Martin Hofmann, enters the story is among the more confusing aspects of the film.) After Viktor and Liesel's road-trip honeymoon across Europe, in one of the luxury cars that his company manufactures, they set about building their dream house.

Liesel's forward-looking mandate to the esteemed German architect Rainer Von Abt (Karel Roden), "simplicity, clarity, light — a home true to the age," suggests an open-mindedness that belies her genteel demeanor. But she's not as sexually adventurous as her friend. Over the time-jumping narrative, Liesel's responses to Hana's overtures evolve from confusion to interest, but always end in refusal, perhaps prompting the longueurs of distant gazes and elegant smoking on Hana's part.

Befitting a period that was arguably the apex of Western design, the early sections, set in the '30s, have a striking visual eloquence, the costumes (by Katarina Štrbová Bielikova) and production design (Milan Býcek) inspired. The fictional Landauer House is based on Tugendhat Villa, a visionary work by Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich on a slope overlooking the Czech city of Brno, and now a UNESCO World Heritage site. It's notable that the real villa (including much of its original furniture) is among the Czech locations so evocatively used by Ševčík and DP Martin Štrba.

Though the ideas of modernity and transparency might be spelled out at least one time too many in the dialogue, the physical setting powerfully communicates the feeling of openness and possibility that the characters embrace — not to mention the wealth that makes it attainable, if only in a material sense. As charmed as their lives might be, Liesel and Hana, both married to Jews, aren't immune to the destructive upheaval that will tear through the Continent, though it takes Liesel, in her secluded aerie, longer to accept this reality; "It won't happen here," she tells her worried friend after sharing news she's heard of anti-Semitic attacks in the city.

Each leap in the story's episodic progress brings new circumstances: Liesel's pregnancies; the arrival of a nanny (Alexandra Borbély); the growing divide between Viktor and Liesel; Hana's flings. After the Landauers flee the country, the focus shifts to Hana's struggles and resilience, giving van Houten more to work with than any other castmember. Hana's husband's business is taken from him in the name of "Aryanization." Forced to wear a yellow star, he prefers to stay home, and grows depressed. The women's love story becomes one of separation as World War II rages: Their mutual longing is expressed in letters, and they think of each other as they endure loveless sex — in Hana's case, with a German engineer, Stahl (Roland Møller). "I'm his whore," she writes to Liesel, in some of the film's most incisive lines. "This is how we live. An entire country doing what it must."

But in one sense Stahl brings her closer to Liesel: He lives and works in Landauer House, overseeing a team of aircraft draftsmen and designers — a vocation tied to the business of killing but in a way that's less unsettling, or perhaps less heavy-handedly Nazi-specific, than the biometric research the character conducted in the novel. With her letters to Liesel unanswered, the house becomes Hana's only link to her beloved friend.

Within the film's elliptical structure, Ševčík conveys the villa's symbolism, as well as Czech political realities — the oppressive weight of German occupation, and then of Soviet control — more convincingly than he's able to build the central melodrama. Given the pan-European optimism that defines the movie's opening passages, the cast's international range is apt, but with the exception of the two leads, none of the characters has much dimension. Even Hana and Liesel often feel secondary to the period trappings.

The exceptions are as powerful as they are welcome. A brief, almost wordless scene in which Hana, flush with cash from Stahl, serves delicacies to her doomed husband, is sharply directed and edited, and played with piercing beauty by van Houten. In its final moments, the film ignites a fuse connecting metaphor, art and emotion — illuminating what's been missing from too much of The Affair.

Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
Production companies: IN Film Praha, Investito, Czech TV, TV JOJ
Cast: Carice van Houten, Hanna Alström, Claes Bang, Roland Møller, Karel Roden, Karel Dobrý, Alexandra Borbély, Martin Hofmann, Zuzana Fialová, Vladimír Polívka
Director: Julius Ševčík
Screenwriter: Andrew Shaw
Based on the novel
The Glass Room by Simon Mawer
Producer: Rudolf Biermann
Director of photography: Martin Štrba
Production designer: Milan Býcek
Costume designer: Katarina Štrbová Bielikova
Editor: Jaroslaw Kaminski
Music: Antoni Komasa-Łazarkiewicz, Rupert Vokmann
Casting: Rebecca van Unen, Margareta Abena

104 minutes