The title of the new film by director Roger Michell, Enduring Love (based on the 1998 novel by Ian McEwan, with a screenplay by Joe Penhall), is a double-entendre, referring both to love that is everlasting and love that must be suffered through. I haven’t read McEwan’s book, but I’m told that it’s a sort of epistemological treatise exploring the relationship between rationality and emotion, objectivity and subjectivity. Sounds like great source material for a thriller, no?
The film starts off promisingly—the book’s harrowing opening scene became instantly famous, and, as it’s filmed, it’s one hell of a nail-biter. The central couple, Joe Rose (Daniel Craig) and his girlfriend Claire (Samantha Morton), are settling in for a peaceful picnic in the English countryside when suddenly an errant hot-air balloon swoops past. A young boy is inside the balloon’s basket, and Joe and a handful of other men run to grab its dangling ropes. They steady it briefly before a strong wind comes along and lifts them all into the air, where, one by one, they drop away, except for one man, who hangs on as it rises higher and higher. We hold our breath, imagining the worst, and then it comes. He loses his grip and we watch helplessly as he drops to the ground from a sickening height.
The scene is like a master class in creating suspense and audience empathy. Haris Zambarloukos’ cinematography is just about perfect—alternately elegantly pastoral and dizzyingly kinetic—and ambient noise is recorded so crisply and played so loudly that it has a shocking immediacy (the sound crew was led by Danny Hambrook). From here, the movie, like the balloon, has nowhere to go but down.
Wracked by guilt and second-guessing, Joe becomes obsessed with the accident and the man who died. He soon gets a call from Jed Parry (Rhys Ifans), another participant in the failed rescue attempt, who forced Joe into an awkward prayer (Joe’s a man of science, not religion) at the site of the dead man’s landing. Joe doesn’t want to talk to Jed—he’s more interested in finding out how this stranger got his phone number—but he goes to meet with him anyway, hoping to satisfy Jed enough to get rid of him. Jed’s not an easy fellow to shake, though, and soon he’s stalking Joe, appearing at the university where Joe teaches, the bookstore where he shops, the cafeteria where he has lunch. Joe’s entreaties to be left alone and his growing fury only seem to encourage Jed. He’s obsessed with the notion that the two of them forged a deep, spiritual connection on that day in the country, and nothing Joe says can dissuade him. Also, Jed wants to sleep with him.
This is squirmy, bizarre stuff, and Ifans makes it almost unbearably uncomfortable to watch. The issue of sexual orientation is never addressed (presumably because Jed’s love, though he longs to express it physically, is, at least to him, of a higher order), and later we see heterosexual pornography in Jed’s apartment. His motivations are perfectly clear and completely inscrutable at the same time. We long to make some sense of the character, but, as we’re given almost no information about him, it’s impossible.
The casting is also a problem. Selecting Ifans to play Jed is like Kubrick’s casting Jack Nicholson in The Shining: If the character appears crazy and dangerous from the first scene, how are the filmmakers to dramatize his descent into madness? Ifans can project a certain scruffy, puppy-dog likability , but I’ve never seen him play a character who seemed sane or normal. He’s not helped by his appearance here: Shaggy-haired, unshaven, and clad in ill-fitting clothes and Members’ Only jackets, he looks like an emaciated, heroin-addicted David St. Hubbins from This is Spinal Tap.
As the film trots along, it tosses aside significant questions and devolves into a sort of re-gendered Fatal Attraction. The boy in the basket is quickly forgotten; we never learn how a child happened to be ballooning solo or how Jed came to be involved. When we first see him, he appears to be with the boy, and we assume that perhaps he’s the father or a balloon instructor. He’s not, but where he came from (and who he is, what he does for a living) is never explained. This is, to a degree, of a piece with the narrative. We are led at first to suspect that Joe may be imagining Jed, externalizing his guilty conscience. (I found myself scrutinizing scenes in which they appeared in the presence of others to see if bystanders were reacting to Jed.) But eventually the whole issue of Joe’s obsession with the balloon incident is dropped for about 45 minutes, only to return in the closing scene.
Intermixed with the thriller plot is the story of Joe’s questioning of the nature of love and the gradual breakdown of his relationship with Claire. He has a mechanistic view that essentially reduces all emotion to biology, which contrasts with Claire’s more romantic sensibility (a Keats scholar in the book, here she’s been turned into a sculptress). His balloon obsession created a rift that his cold rationalism and growing anxiety about Jed only widen.
The scenes where Joe discusses the nature of love with colleagues, friends, or students feel tacked-on; they don’t half match the energy of his scenes with Jed, but we’re almost thankful for them as a respite from their distressing confrontations. There is conviction in Ifans’ performance; he’s so insistent that Joe returns his love but just can’t admit that even Joe starts to wonder if something did pass between them. After a while, you feel so unhinged and ready to accept anything that you wouldn’t be surprised if they did wind up together after all, like Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling.
Zambarloukos’ cinematography gives Enduring Love great images throughout (though a handful feel hokey or overplayed) and it has the best, most evocative use of sound in a film in recent memory. It’s a whole lot of artistry for naught, though, when the story doesn’t come together in a satisfying way. Michell knows how to structure a scene to create the shock effects he wants, but he hasn’t unified the material in a way that makes sense. He’s set Jed’s obsession up as the core of the film, but it’s depicted so inconsistently that we have no way to respond to it—one minute he’s writing “Joseph and Jed” over and over again like a schoolgirl with a crush, the next he’s acting like Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce. I can’t even decide if the film is homophobic because, though Jed’s love for Joe feminizes him in the most insulting, misogynistic sense of the term, he doesn’t really seem gay or straight. He’s a Joemosexual. Michell has done good, cunning work with the more traditional romance of Notting Hill and his adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, but if he can’t make sense of the love story here, how can the audience?
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Enduring Love / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()