Review: ‘The Affair’ (2021), starring Carice van Houten, Hanna Alström, Claes Bang, Karel Roden and Roland Møller

March 5, 2021

by Carla Hay

Hanna Alström and Carice van Houten in “The Affair” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“The Affair”

Directed by Julius Sevcík 

Culture Representation: Taking place in Czechoslovakia and Germany from the 1930s to 1960s, the dramatic film “The Affair” features an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Two women (one wealthy, the other middle-class) in Czechoslovakia fall in love with each other and hide this secret from almost everyone they know (including their husbands), and their relationship is tested when one of the women moves to Germany.

Culture Audience: “The Affair” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in slow-moving European arthouse dramas where the cinematography and production design are better than the story.

Clockwise, from left to right: Hanna Alström, Carice van Houten, Claes Bang and Karel Roden in “The Affair” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

The dramatic film “The Affair” is truly a case of style over substance. The movie is gorgeous to look at, with stunning architecture and dreamy cinematography, but when it comes to the overall pacing and story structure, “The Affair” comes up very short. Directed by Julius Sevcík, “The Affair” is supposed to be about a longtime secret romance between two women, but there’s no convincing passion between any of the characters in this movie, whose story spans about 30 years.

“The Affair” is based on Simon Mawer’s 2009 novel “The Glass Room,” which was the original title of the movie. Mawer adapted the book into the movie’s screenplay, which is a dull and dreary slog that is further impeded by Sevcík’s haphazard direction. Many of the actors speak in awkward cadences, with too many uncomfortable pauses in the dialogue. There is very little chemistry between the actors, so that’s already a setback for a movie that’s supposed to be about love and romance.

“The Affair,” which takes place from the 1930s to 1960s, is set primarily in Brno, Czechoslovakia, but some of the story also takes place in Germany. In the beginning of the movie, it’s the 1930s, and wealthy newlyweds Liesel (played by Hanna Alström) and Viktor (played by Claes Bang) meet with famed architect Von Abt (played by Karel Roden) about commissioning him to build their dream home. The meeting takes place in Von’s own ornate and formal house.

Von asks the couple if they would like a house designed like his own home. Liesel politely but firmly says no. She says she wants her and Viktor’s house to have “simplicity, clarity, light.” And that’s what they get: It’s a modern minimalist house with many walls made of glass.

Liesel is the type of woman who is attractive to many people, but she is fairly modest and doesn’t like to call too much attention to herself. She could be considered a “trophy wife.” Von is one of the people who is attracted to her, but she has rebuffed his advances.

Von made a pass at Liesel one night, before he built Liesel and Viktor’s house. Von showed her his architecture sketches to a pregnant Liesel, who expressed her excited approval of the sketches. She then gave him a ride home in her car.

Before Von got out of the car, he leered at her and asked her if she would like go inside the house with him. He made it obvious that what he wanted was not an innocent chat with a cup of tea. Liesel turned him down nicely and he got the message that she was not interested in having an affair with him.

Liesel and Viktor (who is a businessman) have settled into their marriage and are anticipating the arrival of their first child. They live near another married couple named Hana (played by Carice van Houten) and Oskar (played by Martin Hoffmann), who are middle-class. While Liesel is introverted and likes to play it safe, Hana is more of an extrovert and is more likely to take chances.

Liesel and Hana have grown close, although the movie never really shows how this friendship has developed. By the time Hana is shown in the movie, she’s already expressing that she has romantic feelings for Liesel. Hana looks at Liesel lovingly. And when they’re alone together, Hana starts rubbing Liesel’s pregnant belly and starts to put one of her hands underneath Liesel’s clothes, but Liesel stops Hana before anything sexual can happen.

These types of encounters happen a few more times, where Hana makes the first move (such as trying to give Liesel a romantic kiss), but Liesel stops her. Liesel doesn’t express enough about what she’s feeling to say if what bothers her more is the thought of cheating on her husband or having a same-sex romance or if it’s equally both. Hana doesn’t press the issue, but Liesel makes it clear her feelings for Hana are more than friendship, because they kiss each other’s hands in a romantic way.

There are many ways to express repressed passion, but unfortunately Alström and von Houten are not convincing as two people who are longing to be lovers but can’t because of their circumstances. When Hana caresses Liesel’s pregnant belly, Hana looks more like she’s giving an obstetrician exam than someone who is in love. Liesel seems to be in love with her husband Viktor in the beginning of their marriage, but Alström and Bang aren’t able to portray much of a romantic spark between Liesel and Viktor.

Liesel gives birth to a girl named Otilie (played by Anouk Christiansen), and then two years later gives birth to a boy named Martin (played by Evan Cregan). Viktor and Liesel have a live-in nanny named Kata (played by Alexandra Borbély), who is a refugee single mother of a daughter named Marika (played by Tabitha Campbell). The movie doesn’t do a very good job of introducing these characters.

One minute, Liesel is a first-time mother. And then in a subsequent scene, three children are playing together with Kata in Liesel and Viktor’s spacious backyard. Viewers won’t know who the other two children are until it’s mentioned later in the story. The children are Martin at age 4, Otilie at age 6 and Marika at age 8.

Meanwhile, Hana and Oskar have been unable to have children together. Hana tells Liesel that she’s happy for Liesel to be able to have children. However, it’s fairly obvious that Hana is envious, but she doesn’t want to say it out loud. The movie is vague about the nature of Hana and Oskar’s relationship, since they aren’t shown together very much.

For example, in one scene, when Liesel was pregnant with Otilie, Hana is having dinner over at Liesel and Viktor’s house. Hana mentions to Liesel that Von has asked her out to dinner. Hana asks Liesel, “Do you mind?” The implication is that Liesel told Hana about Von making a pass at her.

Liesel says she doesn’t mind if Hana goes to dinner with Von. The implication is that Hana knows exactly what Von’s intentions are. And it’s not to talk about architecture. But in this scene, there’s no mention of why married Hana is going out on a potentially sexual date. Is she sneaking around on Oskar, or do they have an open relationship? It’s never explained.

One thing that’s clear though is that Hana spends more time with Liesel than she does with Oskar. From the outside, it looks like Hana is the one in the unhappy marriage, while Liesel’s marriage is the stable one. But something happens that rocks Liesel’s world and she can’t look at her own life in the same way again.

It’s enough to say that things take a drastic turn in Liesel and Viktor’s marriage. They stay together, but they move to Germany. And it’s heartbreaking for Liesel and Hana, who continue to write to each other and express their love for one another. As time goes on, they completely fall out of love with their husbands but don’t get divorced because of the stigma.

While all this is happening, Nazi Germany has been invading various countries throughout Europe. Liesel and Hana, who are not Jewish, are worried because their husbands are Jews. As a wealthy man, Viktor has the resources to hide his Jewish identity while he lives in Germany.

Oskar is more vulnerable, since he’s well-known in the neighborhood for being a Jew. There are signs that he is being marginalized and targeted, such as Nazi soldiers showing up to interrogate him. Oskar and Hana’s bank accounts also become frozen. It’s part of Nazi discrimination that the Nazis call “Aryanization.”

Hana grew to love the dream house where Liesel and Viktor used to live in Czechoslovakia. It not only reminds her of Liesel, but Hana also thinks the house is a work of art. After Liesel and Viktor moved to Germany, the house went into somewhat of a state of disrepair. However, Hana keeps going back to the house to visit when she can.

The house then became a school for architecture students. And then, an airplane designer named Stahl (played by Roland Møller) moves into the house. Hana and Stahl meet and it isn’t long before they become lovers. Stahl is a widower, and he tells Hana when they become closer that his wife committed suicide after their baby died while still in the womb.

Meanwhile, Hana and Liesel continue to write love letters to each other. Liesel confesses in one of the letters that when she and Viktor have sex, she thinks of Hana. It’s an indication that if Hana and Liesel ever see each other in person again, Liesel might not stop anything sexual that could happen between them.

“The Affair” goes about telling the story in a jumbled fashion. There are some scenes that are completely useless. And then there are other parts of the story that need to be explained by scenes that aren’t in the movie. The movie’s pacing really drags near the middle of the film. And the romance that’s supposed to be the main storyline is very bland.

And worst of all, there’s a storyline involving Viktor that is a big turning point affecting all the main characters, but then this storyline fades away without being fully resolved. Perhaps with more compelling acting, a more interesting screenplay and better choices in editing, “The Affair” wouldn’t be so monotonous. As it stands, it’s the kind of movie that people can watch and probably forget about a few days later, if they can get through the whole movie without falling asleep.

Vertical Entertainment released “The Affair” on digital and VOD on March 5, 2021. The movie was released in the Czech Republic in 2019.

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