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 toward 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 a 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 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. He’s 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.

Review: ‘The Racer,’ starring Louis Talpe

October 4, 2020

by Carla Hay

Louis Talpe and Matteo Simoni in “The Racer” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“The Racer”

Directed by Kieron J. Walsh

Culture Representation: Taking place in Ireland in 1998, the sports drama “The Racer” features an all-white cast representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 38-year-old Belgian cyclist, who is a domestique (supporting) team member in the 1998 Tour de France, faces an uncertain future because he’s been a longtime doper who will soon be considered too old for the sport, at a time when pro cycling officials are starting to crack down on dopers.

Culture Audience: “The Racer” will appeal primarily to people interested in dramatic movies about professional cyclists, the Tour de France and the types of athletes who take performance-enhancing drugs.

Louis Talpe and Tara Lee in “The Racer” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

You don’t have to be a sports fan to know that for many athletes, winning at all costs is the only thing that matters. It’s why using performance-enhancing drugs (or “doping”) will always be around, even though some sports leagues have made some headline-grabbing attempts to punish athletes who have been caught using these drugs while competing in their sports. “The Racer” is a fictional look at a professional cyclist who is caught up in a doping lifestyle, not just because he wants to do it, but because he can.

People who are interested in the psychology and culture of doping in cycling have plenty of documentaries for reference, including the Oscar-winning 2017 film “Icarus” and the several documentaries that have been made about disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, who was stripped of all of his Tour de France champion titles. “The Racer” (directed by Kieron J. Walsh), which takes place in 1998, is an intimate look at a fictional doper cyclist who’s a “domestique”: someone whose only job on the team is not to win but to be a supporting team player who will help the chosen team member win.

Because of the nature of their supporting roles on the team, domestiques don’t get the glory of being racing champions. It takes a certain kind of person who is willing to accept this role of knowing they’ve agreed in advance to lose the race as an individual so that someone else on the team can win. These types of athletes don’t have a big enough ego to crave being the center of attention as a champion. They’re just happy to be a part of the team and make it to the big leagues of the Tour de France.

Belgian cyclist Dominique “Dom” Chabol (played by Louis Talpe) is that type of person. Dom, who is part of the fictional Austrange cycling team of international cyclists, is at a crossroads in his career because his contract with the team might not get renewed and he’s at an age when most professional athletes have to start preparing for retirement. He is 38 years old, he’s been a sports cyclist for about 25 years, and his entire identity is being a cyclist. At one point in the movie he says, “Without a bike, I’m nobody.”

Dom is also a longtime doper. Why? Because being a doper is considered “normal” in pro cycling. Almost all the pro cyclists take performance-enhancing drugs, according to Dom. Based on what former Tour de France champ Armstrong and many of his former teammates have told the media, doping in pro cycling has been an open secret in real life for years.

Dom is a loner whose closest companion is his cycling team’s “Dr. Feelgood,” who supplies them with the drugs and secretive medical treatment that he gives to the dopers on the team. This drug supplier is a Brit named Sonny McElhone (played by Iain Glen), a former pro cyclist who has a “father figure” persona to the cyclists on the team. Sonny travels with the team, so that he’s always on call whenever members of the team need his services.

Sonny’s official title is “trainer/physical therapist” but he’s really a glorified drug dealer who injects the cyclists with the drugs and does things like gives massages to the cyclists, watches them train, and monitors their vital signs. Dom is one of Sonny’s favorite team members because Dom is easy to get along with and respectful to everyone. Sonny also makes sure that the team’s owners and management don’t get all the details about the drug activity, because these head honchos just don’t want to know.

The star cyclist of the Austrange team is Lupo “Tartare” Marino (played by Matteo Simoni), an emotionally volatile Italian who is both cocky and insecure. Tartare is most insecure the night before a big race, when he has severe anxiety. When he has these anxiety attacks, Tartare paces back and forth and starts rambling about how he’s going to lose the race. Tartare also has the huge ego of someone who needs to be the center of attention, but he backs up that ego with the athletic talent of someone who’s very capable of winning races.

Dom is the only one who can really calm Tartare’s nerves when Tartare is having an anxiety attack. Therefore, Tartare is not only physically dependent on Dom to be his domestique during their races together, but Tartare is also emotionally dependent on Dom. Tartare and Dom are not close friends, but they are generally respectful of each other.

The Austrange Team’s coach is nicknamed Viking (played by Karel Roden), who is a no-nonsense leader with a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about the doping on his team. His chief concern is winning. And if members of the team use illegal drugs that are commonplace in their profession, he’s not going to stop them.

Dom does not have the type of close relationship with Viking that he has with Sonny. Dom’s contract with the Austrange team will soon be up for renewal, but Viking won’t give Dom an answer either way about whether or not the team will renew the contract with Dom. Viking says that a lot of it will depend on how well Dom does in the current Tour de France, which is taking place in Ireland that year, since France is hosting the World Cup.

The movie takes place when the Austrange Team is in Ireland for the first three stages of the Tour de France. During this trip, Dom starts to experience difficulty breathing, dizziness and night sweats. And so, Sonny calls a doctor to give Dom a checkup in Dom’s hotel room.

The doctor who gives Dom this medical exam is one of those “only in the movies” type of doctor. She just happens to be a 26-year-old Irish blonde beauty who looks and dresses more like a young actress than a typical doctor. Her name is Dr. Lynn Brennan (played by Tara Lee), and she’s the only woman in the movie with a significant on-camera speaking role. As soon as Lynn is introduced in the movie, it’s obvious that she’s going to be the love interest for Dom.

It’s a very “male gaze” director cliché that the would-be girlfriend has to be good-looking and often much younger than the leading man. The Lynn Brennan character is the one casting choice in the movie that is not convincing at all. And it didn’t have to be that way. It would not have been hard to cast a female doctor who’s attractive and intelligent but also looks like she actually has several years of job experience in the real world, instead of someone who looks like she recently graduated from college.

“The Racer” director Walsh (who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Ciaran Cassidy) fortunately doesn’t let the movie get bogged down in a sappy romance. The movie realistically shows that an athlete like Dom who’s competing in the Tour de France will have this race as his single-minded obsession until his next major race. It’s why when Dom’s sister Emilie (played by Clarissa Vermaark) calls to tell Dom the bad news that their father has died, Dom chooses not to go to the funeral because it would mean that he would miss out on being in the Tour De France.

Emilie (who is not seen in the movie and is only a voice over the phone) is very upset with Dom’s decision, but he is unmoved. Dom isn’t cold-hearted, but he explains to Lynn that he never had a very emotionally close relationship with his parents. By contrast, Lynn is very close to her family. While she and Dom are at a pub together in their free time, she introduces him to her father Peter (played by Reamonn O’Byrne) and her uncle John (Lalor Roddy), who appear briefly in the film.

As for the racing scenes, they’re thrilling and filmed realistically. Because Dom is introverted, he tends to be emotionally closed off from his other teammates, so the other members of the team aren’t given much screen time in the movie. Dom is friendly to a young team newcomer named Enzo (played by Diogo Cid), who looks up to Dom. Although Dom gives this newbie team member some advice, Dom doesn’t exactly mentor Enzo either, since Dom keeps mostly to himself.

Because so much of “The Racer” depends on how Dom is depicted, Talpe does an admirable job in portraying the inner conflicts of someone who doesn’t express his emotions easily. He has a convincing physique as a doper cyclist with no body fat, but Talpe also brings to life a compelling psychological portrait of this very specific athlete. Glen also does a very good performance as Sonny, who come across as someone who’s convinced that he’s helping these athletes, even though the drugs he administers have long-term damaging effects to the athletes’ health.

The doping problem is not treated lightly in the movie (you can bet there’s at least one health scare experienced by a doper on the team), as the storyline of “The Racer” depicts the real-life doping scandal that took place during the 1998 Tour de France. Dom also has trouble dealing with how getting older is affecting his status on the team, when Viking chooses a younger, less experienced teammate named Erik Schultz (played by Paul Robert) instead of Dom for an important part of the Tour de France.

Will Lynn find out Dom’s doping secret? Will Dom get caught by racing officials? Will the Austrange team renew Dom’s contract, or will he go to another team? (The movie shows Dom making inquiries to join another team, in case he becomes a free agent.) All of those questions are answered in the movie, where Dom indeed makes some big decisions about his future. “The Racer” is a fictional story but it’s a competent dramatic depiction of the real-life issues faced by a doper cyclist whose entire self-esteem is wrapped up in the sport.

Gravitas Ventures released “The Racer” on digital and VOD on September 18, 2020.