A picnic gone awry
Enduring Love, the screen version of Ian McEwan’s popular 1998 novel, is a crafty, carefully modulated interpretation rather than an attempted transcription of its source. I have not read the book, but after seeing the film, I did read about the changes made to McEwan’s prose. I will not speculate on whether these adjustments will be embraced by McEwan’s readers; I found the film to be a somewhat dry but compelling tale that begins as a rumination on the effects of the random nature of disaster on ordinary people and then slithers into psychological-thriller territory.
The opening scene of both the film and the book is the same vivid collision of serenity and catastrophe. College professor Joe Rose (Daniel Craig) and his girlfriend, Claire (Samantha Morton), sink into a relaxed picnic in the pastoral English countryside. They have spread their blanket atop lush greenery, and wine is readied to flow when a hot-air balloon drifts into their idyllic afternoon and crashes into the ground. A man jumps out of the balloon basket, leaving a terrified young boy hunkered inside, and wrestles with a mooring rope. As the balloon threatens to escape, Joe and several other men in the area unite in a rescue attempt that results in a fatal freak accident.
Joe returns to his classroom but not to his previous state of mind. His usually objective scientific rationale has been so jarred by the tragedy that even mundane objects remind him of the incident. His theories and lectures on the conflicts of love and logic gradually degenerate into babble as he both mentally and physically revisits that day and fails to make sense of what happened. And Joe’s disorientation and widening alienation from Claire is further complicated when fellow rescuer Jed (Rhys Ifans) contacts him. Jed cryptically insists that “something has passed between them” during their intense encounter and begins desperately shadowing Joe.
Enduring Love wonders if a felled hero is inherently brave or instead driven by instinct, recklessness or just garden-variety bad luck. The film is about chaos, heroism, guilt and obsession. It is a nightmare of chance encounters, mysteries and suspicions that takes us from confusion into madness while addressing such issues as forgiveness, faith, trust, redemption, loneliness, post-traumatic stress disorder, the fragility of life and that ever-slippery thing called love. It talks of fate vs. heavenly purpose, and it asks what love means. Is it merely a transformative illusion: a trick of nature used to make us procreate? Or is it something very real that defies all logic? And is falling out of love then an aberration or inevitability?
Director Michell (The Mother, Changing Lanes and Notting Hill) has worked with both male leads before. He competently establishes tone and suspense and enhances the drama at hand with imaginative camera angles, and such staples as recurring bad dreams with such cinematic flourishes as spinning beds. The British accents are hard to fully decipher at times, a downside compounded by ambient and peripheral sound effects and dialogue that intrude into otherwise intimate conversations. British playwright Joe Penhall’s adapted screenplay feels flat in spots but soon recovers, and the film’s edgy editing and hand-held camera effects contribute to the nerve-jangling content. The moody soundtrack includes John Coltrane’s “Naima,” and Jed’s crooning of Brian Wilson and Tony Asher’s “God Only Knows” is a chilling showstopper.
Craig, who played Paul Newman’s son in Road to Perdition, gives a resonant performance as the conflicted professor. Twice Oscar-nominated Morton (In America and Sweet and Lowdown) is effectively low-key as the sculptor who wishes she could capture a model’s soothing voice in her work. Ifans, who played Hugh Grant’s flatmate Spike in Notting Hill, is superbly disturbing as the Bible-quoting rescuer who believes that everything happens for a reason. And two new characters created for film, who act as confidants for the beleaguered Joe and Claire, are portrayed by Bill Nighy and Susan Lynch.
One of the key points of this film is that love is not rocket science. It exists without the need of explanation. The film also addresses the issue that having and acknowledging emotion gives other people power over us. It is a fear most of us have. It is risky business. But the film also points out that love is not necessarily synonymous with relinquishing control, but just having the courage to share it.