A tepid period melodrama set against the backdrop of Czech history, “The Affair” might best be described as a movie about a house. That’s more accurate.
Czech director Julius Sevcík (“A Prominent Patient”) has made a film of Simon Mawer’s “The Glass Room,” and shot it in both English and Czech. Let’s hope it’s better in Czech.
It’s a more torpid than torrid tale of two wealthy friends, played by Carice van Hoeten and Hanna Alström, who flirt with being friends with benefits, only to have the Nazis interrupt that — leading to decades of sad, heartfelt letters of longing as one flees to Switzerland and the other is left behind to face personal degradation and national humiliation, and the Nazi abuse and misuse of the designer modernist house Liesl (Alström) left behind when she and her family fled.
It’s the sort of movie where a conversation drifts from what it’s like to “live in a masterpiece” to mildly unnerving chatter about what’s going on right across the border.
Hanna is the one who points out “We’re both married to Jews,” while Liesl is Mrs. “It won’t happen here.”
“Liesl, it’s happening 50 kilometers away!“
The film begins with the 1930s wedding of Liesl to Victor (Claes Bang) and the extravagant home she commissions from famous architect Von Abt (Karel Roden), with big glass windows and Onyx walls, filled with the latest in artwork and furniture destined to be included in the Museum of Modern Art as well.
The women, whose husbands are in business together, meet and share intimate conversations and friendship as their lives and families begin. One’s husband cheats with the nanny, which has consequences, but none that make us feel anything. Hanna must prostitute herself to a German aircraft designer (Roland Møller) to keep her and her husband from being deported.
“I am his whore,” she writes. This is how we live, an entire country doing what it must.”
Even that abusive relationship is bathed in blue light and pitched in a way that leaves the viewer cold.
Van Hoeten has been a European star since “Black Book,” and I can’t remember a performance of hers that moved me less.
The Swedish Alström, of the “Kingsmen” action comedies, is dry and distant as well. The leading ladies have little chemistry.
Bang (“The Square”) is on the periphery for much of the movie, with only a couple of heated moments to play.
Treating the history — 1930s to 1960s — as background noise lowers the stakes and renders the longing the women feel for each other’s company lukewarm throughout. The Holocaust, death, rape and wrenching separations recede as we refocus on what’s become of the house.
It has to work better as a novel because in the movie, that plays as heartless and hangs over the entire film, a pall that never clears and allows “The Affair” to bite, cut, sting or inflame.
MPA Rating: unrated, violent images, sex, some nudity
Cast: Carice van Hoeten, Hanna Alström, Claes Bang, Alexandra Borbély, Roland Møller and Martin Hoffman.
Credits: Directed by Julius Sevcík, script by Andrew Shaw, based on the novel “The Glass Room” by Simon Mawer. A Vertical Entertainment release.
Running time: 1:44