Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.
The HBO movie The Affair may have World War II as its setting, and have soldiers (and soldiers' wives) as characters, but this is about a wholly different kind of warfare. With some changes, this could have happened in any environment.
American soldiers have been sent to Great Britain to prepare for combat, but during the meantime they get to mingle with the people (especially the women) of the local village. But things aren't quite as happy as all that, because, in the American army at least, racism still happens, and is expected. The black and white soldiers are not treated equally. The blacks are forced to work in the kitchen and do other similar work while the whites get to do some actual training. The blacks don't even get equal rights when it comes to time off from the base -- it's only when the general and his second-in-command decide (through racist and patronizing logic) that the blacks end up getting a night off away from the base.
The soldiers go to a dance, and are treated to something they don't get back in America -- actual respect. The local welcoming committee welcomes the black soldiers in much the same way as they would the whites, and fun is had by all. One soldier in particular, Travis, (Courtney B. Vance) meets up with a local woman, Maggie (Kerry Fox), whose husband is away fighting the war. She teases him by saying it's her duty as part of the welcoming committee to dance with Travis after he asks, but duty will soon give way to the helpless palpitations of the heart...
During this evening, and what follows, the two realize they've got something the other needs. He needs a nice lady to have conversation and good times with, to distract him from the awfulness of war and of the racism and abuse he puts up with, and she needs a man who acts like a real gentleman and who is interested in her needs instead of a husband who treats her like a trophy wife while having an affair with his secretary on the side. The bond is created when they talk about a Billie Holiday song; later, he visits her house, and teaches her son card tricks. Despite Maggie's knowledge that this affair isn't "right" she soon is swayed by his passion and by her need to be truly loved for who she is.
The two need to keep their affair secret for all the obvious reasons -- after all, Maggie is married. But there's a whole lot of social conventions that are being weakened here, obviously, with race only being one of them. While racism in the UK, as depicted here, anyway, isn't anywhere near the almost-institutionalized concept practised in America, there is another current of bad treatment here, and that is the treatment of women. Just as blacks are treated as second-class citizens, just as they are held back from being the free people that white people are, women are seen here as being in very much the same boat, although this isn't so obvious until Maggie's husband comes home to find out the truth about the affair.
Maggie's husband doesn't just find out about the affair, but has the misfortune to actually see Travis and Maggie having sex in the woods late at night! The husband attacks and beats Travis, and then has him charged for rape, which under military law carries a punishment of death by hanging.
The fact the husband has the man charged for rape pretty much gives it away right there. After all, doesn't the woman have any say in the matter? The two people were having consensual sex. But it doesn't matter, because the wife is basically the husband's property -- or at the very least, the wife is being controlled by the husband, who, even though he's had an affair of his own, thinks nothing of telling her that if she dares tell the truth about the affair, he will divorce her and not allow her to see her son again. Her life is ruined (and so would Travis's) no matter what happens -- she will either lose her family, or lie in court and send an innocent man to death. In Travis's case, I don't know if anything would save him -- he's black, and none of the white people in this movie give a sh*t about what happens to a black guy. Both these people are screwed.
A parallel story occurs as Maggie's friend, an outgoing and fun-loving woman, also goes out with one of the black soldiers. She's already had a few dates with one of the white American soldiers, but has decided she's more fascinated with the black soldier, and begins to see him instead. In this case, she's not even seriously committed to anyone, and yet the white American, along with a few of his buddies, decides to beat the crap out of the black soldier one evening for no other reasons than the fact he dared to go out with a white woman (oh, let's just forget the fact it was her choice to go out with the guy, why don't we?).
The movie isn't excatly subtle. There isn't a decent white male to be found, at least one with a speaking part, and I suppose also if you don't count Maggie's son, who's way too young to be a jerk just yet. It's disarming to hear how casually racist the Army is; Ned Beatty plays the general, and his character totally accepts the belief that black people are just second-class citizens. The husband isn't so much a "racist" as a good old-fashioned oppressor of his own wife, but then again the British are depicted as having a civility which, for some, masks the fact they aren't any more as pure of heart as the white Americans. The husband acts nice and gentlemanly at first, but he's full of pride and macho ego. He doesn't see how unhappy and betrayed his wife is; he doesn't want to realize he's committing a far worse treachery than she ever could -- she just let her heart run away with her, while he is actively trying to destroy lives just so his sense of entitlement and status can remain intact.
Vance and Fox are definitely good, and have a number of emotional scenes together and separately. Even as this is, at this point, only a passionate affair, you understand the emotions at play when society does not allow certain types of people to be all who they could be. If blacks and women weren't routinely treated as second-class, then maybe the results of this story would be different. The Affair is a decent romantic tragedy which gives us some emotional history not necessarily prominent in the history books.
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