Fantastically front-loaded, Enduring Love climaxes early. Joe Rose (Sylvia‘s Daniel Craig), college lecturer and pop evolutionary theorist, is about to picnic with his partner, rising sculptress Claire (Samantha Morton), in a resplendent tree-framed expanse outside London. They barely have time to bring out the bubbly before a tumescent hot-air balloon lumbers into view, red as murder and surreal in its proximity. A boy is in the basket; a man on the ground desperately tries to bring it to heel. The pace shoots through the roof, and suddenly the game is on: Joe dashes to help secure the balloon, and two other men, seemingly conjured from distant quarters of the landscape, converge to grab the available ropes. But the thing ascends, three of the men let go, and the fourth hangs on, only to fall to his death.
If anything, Roger Michell’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s 1997 novel handles this sequence with even greater adrenalized economy than the source. It nails the instant panic, the silent vertigo, the horror-filled pause as the wind gathers for its fatal push—as if all the commas have been turned into dashes. When respectable, bespectacled Joe and another would-be savior, the Cobain-maned Jed Parry (Rhys Ifans), come across the devastated body of the last to let go, Jed suggests they pray. Joe declines, but kneels—enough to start his momentary comrade on the path of obsession, the enduring, baseless, home-wrecking love of the sinister title.
Encouragingly, the film follows the balloon fiasco with a candlelit fillip in which Joe and Claire recount the episode for friends, real tragedy instantly recycled as dinner conversation. Joe’s discomfort at the anecdote ripens—Craig is adept at registering quick mental repositionings—and it’s clear the disaster, the death, will have repercussions. But not in the way he thinks.
Jed stakes out Joe’s bleakly sunlit digs, causing friction with Claire, whose kiln creations resemble Easter Island heads slammed in a vise. Alas, as Jed’s erotomania—the delusion that someone is in love with you, a/k/a de Clerambault’s syndrome—swells, the typical stalker tropes get trotted out, and slackness sets in. The camera goes swirly with paranoia. Jed intones a creepy cover version of a beloved chestnut (“God Only Knows”). Joe breaks into Jed’s lair only to find the inevitable wall of psycho news clippings/outsider art. These tired scenes are a bad substitute for McEwan’s clean, even quotable lines. Craig keeps Joe Rose on a hair trigger, but Morton is wasted as Claire; Ifans simply looks stoned.
Judiciously streamlined, the film also has a gnarlier showdown than the original. But the sense of nightmare, so vivid at first, vanishes like the wind. “Where do we learn such tricks?” asks McEwan’s narrator, dissecting the tactics employed in a domestic argument. “Are they inscribed, along with the rest of our emotional repertoire? Or do we get them from the movies?” Such razor-walking self-consciousness (or just plain braininess) is perhaps impossible to depict coherently on-screen, and the someone’s-watching-me vibe is otherwise overfamiliar to moviegoers. If only Ifans could have bottled the quiet, eye-widening intensity of dental hygienist Andrea, who on the current season of The Bachelor rigidly proclaims her love for Byron despite little evidence of reciprocation. Andrea, will you accept a Rose? I’d love to.