‘The Affair’ Review: Architecture Is the Star of a Muddled Europudding Melodrama

Simon Mawer’s 2009 historical novel “The Glass Room” was well-regarded on both sides of the Atlantic, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and seemingly destined to be filmed sooner rather than later. It was, after all, a decades-spanning saga of illicit desire, betrayal and riches-to-rags survival against the shifting backdrop of the Holocaust and the rise of Communism in the former Czechoslovakia. You wouldn’t guess its lofty origins from watching its eventual adaptation as “The Affair,” and not just because Mawer’s tale is now hidden behind the most generic title imaginable — as if placed in witness protection, to prevent any parties interested in its former identity from finding it. Despite a fine Continental cast and gleaming production values, Czech helmer Julius Ševčík has made a muddled, maudlin hash of what ought to have been a sure thing; limping to a U.S. release two years after its European premiere, it’s a film best enjoyed as a series of chic production stills.

Despite the best efforts of Carice van Houten, Hanna Alström and Claes Bang — all holding down their respective corners of a low-temperature love triangle in very sharp shoes — it’s a house that emerges as the main attraction of “The Affair,” rather as it does in the characters’ tumultuous yet strangely inert lives. Mawer’s novel was set in and around a fictionalized facsimile of Villa Tugendhat, a pioneering modernist stunner in the Czech town of Brno, designed by Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich in the late 1920s. The building of the house and its decaying progress through several generations (and political persuasions) of occupancy gave the novel its own precise architectural framework.

Ševčík’s great coup is getting to film in Villa Tugendhat itself, and it’s not an opportunity wasted: Martin Štrba’s camera luxuriates in the house’s vast rectangular spaces, polar white even when not flooded in generous, beaming daylight, with its famous, earthy-pink onyx feature wall that blazes gold when the sun hits it just so. In the film’s world, however, this is the Landauer House, designed by haughty German genius Rainer von Abt (Karel Roden) for wealthy newlyweds Liesel (Alström) and Viktor (Bang), a Jewish automobile magnate, whose marriage is as passionless as it exceedingly well-styled. Liesel instructs the architect to make her “a home true to the age,” and through the glamorous, heedless years of the 1930s, it’s just that — shown off at many an elegant social gathering, where Liesel’s glamorous BFF Hana (van Houten) is invariably in attendance.

In private, Liesel and Hana’s friendship hovers sultrily on the verge of something more, though it’s the more buttoned-up Liesel who keeps pulling back — all while Viktor grows inordinately interested in their children’s comely refugee nanny (Alexandra Borbély). Such minor marital dramas fade away, however, as Hitler’s influence across the border escalates. Soon Viktor’s company falls prey to Aryanization, and he and Liesel are forced to flee to Switzerland, while Hana (though also married to a Jew) stays behind. The women’s relationship must continue via anguished, frequently disrupted correspondence. As years turn to decades, Hana keeps a close, mournful eye on the house, occupied first as an office for Nazi engineers, before falling progressively into debauched disrepair under the post-war socialist regime.

Yet the longer “The Affair” trudges on, the harder it becomes to gauge what, if anything, it’s really about. The novel’s clean narrative lines and clear political symbolism crumble in an adaptation that removes multiple load-bearing subplots and secondary characters to center a relatively mild domestic soap opera, and even the telling of that is garbled. Andrew Shaw’s screenplay introduces characters haphazardly, and drops apparently significant plot points with blunt abandon. Viewers are left with the sense of a reassembled script that lost several pages in a strong breeze, with only Antoni Komasa-Łazarkiewicz and Rupert Vokmann’s overworked, string-heavy score to fill in the gaps.

Even the principal characters are wanly developed, drifting through proceedings with little palpable sense of interior life or conflict. It takes every ounce of van Houten’s innately fierce presence to keep us invested in Hana, a woman who only sporadically seems to remember she has a husband, and is oddly promoted from alluring best-friend figure to protagonist halfway through. Alström has the reverse problem, battling a character who seems neutralized into vapor the second she sets foot on Swiss soil; Bang, meanwhile, is a distractingly high-end casting choice for such a colorless third wheel. They all look sensational, at least, in Katarina Bielikova’s exquisitely draped, willow-languid period threads, which give those ravishing Tugendhat spaces just the luxe accent an architectural masterpiece (and UNESCO heritage site) deserves. Little else in “The Affair” merits the backdrop.

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