A hot-air balloon rises over an expanse of Oxford countryside; a terrified boy cries inside the balloon’s light basket; and outside, a man hangs on, frantically and hopelessly trying to pull the thing down as it rises fatally higher, to the horror of the few bystanders who happen, by terrible luck, to be in that green field on that specimen day. The opening event in Enduring Love, with its mesmerizing mixture of idyll and plausible catastrophe, is more cinematic than the first-act set pieces that have kicked off a hundred action films. Yet the quicksilver crosscurrents of menace, lost innocence, and everydayness are just as forceful — even more so — on the page: They’re the trademark invention of Ian McEwan, the best-selling British author whose clammy, unsettling stories and coolly intense literary style don’t usually translate nearly so effectively as in this haunting and even shocking film adapted from his 1998 novel of the same name.
The balloon accident hovers in our memory throughout director Roger Michell’s tensely vivid production (from a taut script by British playwright Joe Penhall), as the setting moves from the big outdoors to the claustrophobia of daily city living. But the unfolding horrific present belongs to Joe (Daniel Craig) and Jed (Rhys Ifans), two of the bystanders whose own attempts to help ground the balloon proved useless. Although strangers to one another — Joe is a university science teacher who happened to be picnicking with his girlfriend, Claire (Samantha Morton), that day; Jed is an unshakable, creepy drifter — the fates of the two become profoundly entwined when Jed, whose head is short-circuited with notions of devotion and religious revelation, professes an instant, enduring love for Joe.
The full, choking excitement of the story rests on the slow-building threat of Jed’s dangerous obsession (it’s beyond sexual; it’s closer to celestial) and the effect that love has in weighing Joe down so that he, too, falls — not from the sky, but from the grace of his life with Claire before the accident. What, the film asks, are the properties of true devotion? Does all love except something as uncontainable as Jed’s drift away, untethered? The psychology of McEwan’s stories places daunting demands on the skill of actors to be without doing (see Paul Schrader’s 1991 adaptation of The Comfort of Strangers for a failed attempt). So Michell’s achievement is all the greater in modulating the coiled reposes of his superb male leads, both of whom have worked with the director before. (Craig reawakened the sexuality of an older woman — hell, he’d wake the comatose — in The Mother, Ifans played Hugh Grant’s floppy Welsh roommate in Notting Hill.)
Plenty happens in Enduring Love, especially as Jed stalks Joe with ever-bolder ingenuity, and the plot reaches a typically outsize, McEwanesque climax of violent grotesquerie. But what we float off with is Craig’s contained forcefulness, and the way the director uses the actor’s handsome physical solidity as a measure of man on earth. What blows us away is the power of Ifans’ moist puppy eyes and chilling smile as a true believer undeterred by reality.