Picnicking in a brilliantly green field on the outskirts of London, a couple’s afternoon meal is interrupted by the surreal sight of a hot air balloon crashing nearby. The man, a professor and author named Joe (Daniel Craig) who lectures university students about the meaninglessness of love (which, he argues, is merely a biological impulse), rushes to the balloon’s aid while his quiet girlfriend, a sculptor named Claire (Samantha Morton), watches in horror. Aided by a collection of passersby, Joe attempts to prevent the balloon – which still contains a young boy in its carriage– from once again taking flight, but a giant gust of wind suddenly sends the vehicle, and those grasping its side, airborne. Joe, a man averse to commitment and lacking in genuine courage, lets go of the balloon while it’s still low, as do most of the other would-be rescuers. One man, in a fatal mistake, does not, and the boy dies, unseen, minutes later in a crash.
In Roger Michell’s Enduring Love – its title a reference not only to everlasting adoration, but also to physically and emotionally surviving love – this tragedy is the catalyst for Joe’s uncomfortable encounter with Jed (Rhys Ifans), another unsuccessful hero from that fateful day who develops an unhealthy interest in the mild-mannered teacher. With disheveled blond hair drooping over his brow and clothes which look like they’ve been slept in, Jed is a creepy sort of chap, and it doesn’t take long before his friendly entreaties to Joe transform into disturbing, obsessive pleas for love. Jed is from the Glenn Close school of affection, and Michell’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel – after its entrancingly dreamlike opening passage – reveals itself to be a gay-themed Fatal Attraction in which homosexuality and deranged lunacy are treated as identical sides of the same coin. According to the film’s distressingly antiquated morality, heterosexual commitment and parenting are good, adultery and stalking are bad, and when it comes to same-sex relations, the only tolerable reason for a man to kiss another man is as a clever ploy to murder him.
Joe, whose relationship with Claire is slowly disintegrating, is first flummoxed, then annoyed, and finally enraged by Jed’s pestering, yet Michell turns Joe’s frustration and fury into something of a puzzle – is Joe angry because Jed is a madman, or because this stranger has correctly recognized Joe’s underlying queerness? Virtually all of the film’s tension arises from the murky question of Joe’s sexual preference, since the rest of Michell’s tricks largely involve typically eerie moments such as Joe opening his curtains at night to see… Jed, across the street in the rain, looking up at his apartment window! Ho hum. Jed’s craziness is a foregone conclusion from the moment one hears his soft, pleading voice, and thus the film, rather than conveying a sense of escalating terror, stalls shortly after it begins. And because Jed seems like such a wimpy, unthreatening psycho, it’s nearly impossible to become worried about the foreseeable loony third-act offenses he’ll undoubtedly commit in the name of devotion.
Michell employs innumerable camera gimmicks (Steadicams strapped to characters’ shoulders; different aperture speeds; fish-eye lenses seemingly smeared in Vaseline, etc.) to emphasize Joe’s growing nuttiness, and Craig’s performance has a wired exasperation that nicely contrasts with Morton’s reserved Claire. Yet the film’s sexual politics are, in the end, aggravatingly narrow-minded. Claire’s happily married friends Robin (Bill Nighy) and Rachel (Susan Lynch) – who live in a warm, comfy flat with their three grandchildren – radiate stability and comfort, while Joe’s professional and personal refutation of love marks him not only as the opposite of the romantic Claire, but also as a naïve fool unwilling to accept the desirable status quo. Such a conventional stance isn’t, in and of itself, wrongheaded, and there’s something quite touching about Joe’s realization that his ‘cowardice’ during the balloon accident was symptomatic of his foolish reluctance to pledge himself to Claire. However, the paranoid homophobia implicit in the film’s characterization of Jed (whose dangerousness stems directly from his gay desires) is so thick, you could cut it with a phallic knife. When contrasted with this unstable stalker’s insane homosexuality, Enduring Love‘s sunny portrait of marriage and parenthood as the sole path to sanity and happiness seems mighty exclusionary.
But will it endure… watermelon?