It’s never a good sign when a film sits on the shelf for three years before dribbling out with little fanfare. The pandemic probably played its part – lord knows it’s disrupted enough in movieland – but it’s just as likely the delay was due to lack of confidence in the product rather than lack of opportunity: The Affair, based on Simon Mawer’s Booker-nominated bestseller, The Glass Room, is maddeningly boring; constantly neutering its greatest assets.
On paper this should have been a sure thing: an awards-baiting epic with a story stretching from the 1920s to the 1960s, precision-tooled for Thanking The Academy. Our heroes look on from their architecturally marvelous – and highly symbolic – home as first the Nazis, and then the Soviet Union marches in, bringing intolerance and devastation with them. Jewish newlyweds Liesal and Viktor must choose between flight and persecution as the German forces arrive. What’s more, Liesal and her bestie Hana have a simmering and unspoken attraction, rarely acted upon but vividly real, and neither Hitler nor Stalin was known to look kindly on such relationships.
There’s much for those aforementioned Academy members to admire. Director Julius Ševčík landed a proper coup by filming in the real Villa Tugendhat; a beautiful, 1920’s glass-fronted house in the Czech Republic, which is now listed as a World Cultural Heritage site, and was fictionalised as the setting for Mawer’s original novel. It’s a hell of a location. The casting is absolutely spot on, too. Game of Thrones’ red witch Carice Van Houten stars as Hana; the glamorous and vivacious best friend of Liesal (the Kingsmen franchise’s Hanna Alström) who, alongside husband Viktor (Dracula’s magnetic Claes Bang) is the owner of the beautiful concrete-and-glass villa that forms the figurative and visual heart of the story.
The Affair was released in the Czech Republic back in 2019 under the source novel’s (far better) title, The Glass Room, where it received several award nominations for cinematography and design. Those nominations are richly deserved: every frame, costume and set is gorgeous, starting with that astonishingly stylish location and working out from there.
It’s clear that Ševčík always intended his film to transcend the domestic market – It was shot in English (the original release was dubbed into Czech), is based on a popular English-language book, and stars three actors who have all, to some extent, had some success in British or American properties. All the ingredients of a classy success story are here. Alas, it’s doubtful this over-padded and drawn-out tale is going to make the splash its makers are hoping for.
Van Houten and Alström have enough crackling chemistry to power a smallish Island nation, but they spend most of the film apart. The scenery is gorgeous but tends to overshadow the action happening within it. The historical backdrop is momentous, but the march of the years somehow feels rushed and incidental. It’s all so unsatisfying. The film’s advertised runtime is 104 minutes. It feels twice that. A beautifully presented missed opportunity that, alas, wasn’t worth the wait.