Enduring Love
Director: Roger Michell. Cast: Daniel Craig, Samantha Morton, Rhys Ifans, Bill Nighy, Susan Lynch, Ben Whishaw, Alexandra Aitken, Helen McCrory, Lee Sheward, Justin Salinger, Corin Redgrave, Anna Maxwell Martin. Screenplay: Joe Penhall (based on the novel by Ian McEwan).

This one's for Gabriel.

How do we endure love? How do we survive it, even when we don't want it, or even when we do? And how does love endure? With everything that can and does go wrong, in love and in the world, how does it sustain itself? Or is it we who sustain love, rather than the other way around? What are the relations among love, power, and circumstance? What is the space between two people?

Roger Michell's Enduring Love has some breathtaking questions on its mind, simultaneously profound and accessible. The list above only covers some of them. This film is incredibly ambitious on a shoestring budget—visually interesting, daringly scored, flexibly and vividly acted, and powered at all times by a restless and nervous spirit. Michell's movie is both propulsive and apprehensive: the pivotal action in the plot has already transpired ten minutes into the movie, and from there, even as incidents and psychological reversals pile up, nearly every texture in the film suggests its own understandable uneasiness to go where it's going. Great truths, or at least courageous guesses, are being closely circled—everything from marital treacheries to existential riddles. None of the answers, if broached, will be easy to hear. Herein lies the inveterate tension in the picture, which stretches incalculably past the kind of tepid indecision you see in films like Billy Elliot or The Color Purple, which are afraid to be about what they are about, and thus keep finding ways to apologize for it. Much less is Enduring Love afflicted with the syndrome of flat not knowing or not thinking hard enough about what it is about, in the manner of last year's The Human Stain, another high-profile adaptation of a major novel that sank like a stone at the box-office. So, too, has been the commercial fate of Enduring Love, though in this case the fate is hugely undeserved and hopefully destined for redress on DVD, among curious renters, McEwan dévotés, and connoisseurs of brave filmmaking.

The narrative structure of Enduring Love is one of its trickiest aspects, even more for the filmmakers than for the audience. The opening episode, a terrible accident in which Joe (Daniel Craig) tries but fails to intervene and save lives, quickly becomes the obsessive focus of his guilt-wracked life. It is important to the movie that we don't know anything about Joe or his longtime girlfriend Claire (Samantha Morton) before this trauma takes place. Michell and screenwriter Joe Penhall, working from McEwan's example, are trying to do more than mount a story about how a terrible event changes a person's life. Of course, those stories aren't easy to pull off, either. Mike Leigh's current Vera Drake offers a sound, impressive example of a film that swerves mid-stream, as Vera's entire psychology and family life are devastated by her arrest and subsequent prosecution. If there's a built-in crutch to a story like this, it's the manifest before-and-after template by which the audience can judge performance, tone, and technique. Imelda Staunton is wonderful and accomplished as Vera, but she has the luxury of (mostly) snuggling up to the audience for an hour before the bottom drops out of her life and she semi-showily retreats from us, and from herself.

Enduring Love isn't just about a life changing or crumbling. It wrangles with the thesis of Jean-Luc Godard's recent and remarkable essay-film Notre musique: that the survivor of violence doesn't just change, he or she becomes an entirely new person. Granted, the scope of trauma here is much narrower and more personally specific than the wars Godard is studying. Granted, too, that Joe is as much a witness of violence as its actual survivor. But Enduring Love, taking for granted the force of spiritual and intellectual violence, boldly wipes away all trace of Joe's prior life, whatever it might have been like. He remains a professor of philosophy, he remains Claire's live-in boyfriend, and he looks the same, but Enduring Love is after the seismic spasms in his mind and (would Joe permit this word?) his soul. Moreover, the movie pursues these ideas in a medium much less friendly to internal exploration than the novel form is. Michell, Penhall, and all of their on- and off-screen collaborators are describing a turning point that prohibits any attention to whatever preceded the turn.

In venturing this nearly impossible task, Michell immerses Enduring Love within Joe's point of view, not just in the stray sequence shot but as a permanent condition of the movie. What he has attempted here—and mostly managed—is almost identical to what Steven Soderbergh pulled off in his Solaris remake, subtly trapping us in the perspective of a beleaguered protagonist, who himself is trapped in an inchoate state of grief and fantasy. Like Solaris' Dr. Kelvin, a psychotherapist, Joe is a thinking man by profession; his classroom speculations about the nature of love are witty but diligent, like Iris Murdoch's treatises on the same subject. As in Dr. Kelvin's story, the sincerity of his mourning is never in doubt, and yet we infer that Joe is even more undone by the assault on his own thinking than by the fact of death itself. And as in Solaris (note, too, the sustained theme of box-office failure!), the persistent appearances of an unsettling guest are both a problem in themselves and an exterior sign of interior turmoil.

The living phantom who trails Joe is Jed Parry (Rhys Ifans), a tall, gangly, straggly-haired ragamuffin who lept to the rescue in the same accident as Joe did. (I am purposely not describing the type of accident; go see the movie.) Joe's destabilization has taken the form of nightmares, constant distraction, spells of near-hypnotic detachment, constant self-recrimination, and recurring mental images which he sometimes scrawls on paper. Jed, though, has somehow taken away an opposite lesson. The accident, for him, was a revelation of divine love, and possibly another kind of love, since he can't leave Joe alone, can't stay away from his house, can't stop begging him for confirmation and even reciprocation of his own feelings. Jed might well be an unfathomable figure in any context, but in a film so tightly linked to Joe's bewildered and impatient point of view, Jed is even more mysterious. His passionate, stalker-like devotion to Joe defies rationality. Like the accident itself, it arrives to Joe's consciousness as a fait accompli, a fact that has to be dealt with. The grammar of cause-effect collapses, with Jed's unwanted attentions as both a result of and a rhyme with the trauma that brought them together. Enduring Love is more than an egghead's Fatal Attraction because the nature of the crisis isn't quite so clear. Jed's panting speeches about love seem extravagant, but they aren't far off from where Joe's own mind is straying. Later, he will skulk into his stalker's own apartment, and discover with some alarm, perhaps, that the relentless décor of magazine pin-ups and scribbled illustrations is virtually identical with his own. What is going on here, and more than that, who is who? Though sexual longing courses through the film (Claire and Jed both want Joe, who is differently unavailable to both of them), the sexual is also just a veil here for the philosophical. It's a conundrum out of Graham Greene: Joe, godless, has lost sense of the world. But—is this too much to allege?—the problem on view might be even bigger than that.

Speaking of confusion between rhymes and results, Michell's visual, aural, and editing styles both communicate and mirror Joe's mental state. Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, in his first major screen credit, recurrently places his camera at close, oblique angles over Joe's shoulder or above his temple; strict point-of-view shots are mostly avoided, but the proximation of that point-of-view is palpable and surprisingly disorienting. Halfway through the movie, Morton's Claire dresses up prettily and prepares an exotic meal that is meant, I suppose, to get Joe to notice her again, and to revisit his own life. The actors are dreams in this scene, exchanging looks and I love you's at a pace that's just a little too rapid, forced. The sound of both of them chomping loudly on what looks like calamari is amplified enough to nag our senses. The camera keeps moving around, searching for a comfortable position and barely noticing when Joe simply shuts down, like the electricity has gone out of him.

This is the sort of nervy, deceptively complex scene at which Enduring Love so excels. Joe's vitality is so diminished he is barely a shadow in the scene, and yet his troubled spirit serves to characterize every minute detail of the filmmaking. A handful of scenes in Claire's studio (she is a sculptor by trade), another handful of strained dinner conversations with the couple's best pals (crisply indicated by Bill Nighy and Susan Lynch), and the peeks into the beehivey buzz of discourse inside Joe's classroom and department office all tremble with the same subterranean discomfort. You can point at whole passages of the film and not see anything that looks too out of the ordinary, especially for such a skimpily budgeted FilmFour/Pathé production. But that's where the role of the editor comes in. Nicolas Gaster, continuing an interesting and selective career, contributes to our fruitful confusion by knocking unexpected shots up against one another. It's not just the rhythms of Enduring Love that are off, it's the very reality of what we see, and what the apparent fissures in that reality might mean. Is Jed "really there" or is he a projection of Joe's own psyche? Is he both, sometimes there and sometimes not? He isn't the only character whose existence we are gently clued to doubt. No secret shall pass from my lips, but in the enigmatic final sequence of the movie, Joe is traversing a field in the company of a boisterous girl and a peppy puppy. In a single cut, though, they've utterly disappeared, while an altogether less expected person trots into view like it's no big deal. It is a very big deal, no matter how you parse it. But how do you parse it?

A major risk in a film like this is that teasing the boundary between reality and hallucination becomes an end in itself, but Enduring Love is too modest to play up its teasing metaphysics; if anything, its viewers are much more likely to omit these glitches in the matrix, both because of their sinewy subtlety and because the personal dramas among the characters are all so rich. A movie about these alone would be complete. A more pressing risk, given Michell's evolving career, is that the tart character drama and fascinatingly layered drama of the film's first half will give way to cliché, rigidity, and greater implausibility in the second half. Such was the fate of Notting Hill, Changing Lanes, and this spring's The Mother, all of them interesting defiers of generic convention that ultimately and flat-footedly embraced the very templates they had previously avoided. It's true that swatches of Enduring Love push too hard or simply don't work, though our basic confidence in the picture never gives way. Even if he's a figment, the spectacle of Jed serenading Joe in the midst of a lecture is quite a bit to swallow. Ifans is never an easy actor for me to take, and like Craig and Morton, he has some abiding actorly mannerisms that Michell occasionally indulges. The director's M.O. seems to be that he'll get the best from his actors if he once in a while lets them take the keys and go where they desire. In general, though, balance is preserved, even when some decisive bits of plot-resolution would fell a lesser movie. This is Michell's most consistent and sustained piece since Persuasion. Though the idioms of the two films couldn't be more different, the free-indirect rendering of a social and spiritual milieu via one central character is a trope that binds them together, maybe even becoming a Michell hallmark.

Enduring Love boasts a few more gaffes and redundancies, but I'm frankly uninterested in enumerating them. What works in the film works so well—and even better, works so distinctively—that the picture deserves a lion's share of praise. Michell isn't scared by symbol or metaphor. No director who literally lets terror fall from the skies in his first scene can possibly be described as figurally timid. When he finds an emblem he likes, he isn't scared of playing it up. Claire's facial busts might be an obvious way to punctuate the theme of glyph-like personal identity, but they're also a brilliantly executed bit of production design (the faces are most lifelike when you look at them from an angle), and the unapologetic filmmaking saves what's potent in the imagery. Same thing with Daniel Craig's famously buff bod, which has seduced many a filmmaker before Michell. In Enduring Love, where sculpture and probing intelligence are two guiding metaphors, Craig's physique carries a Rodinian weight that amply justifies some adoring close-ups on head, chest, arms, and bum. (Not that I'm one to complain about a camera doting on Daniel Craig anyway; wait, did I just break the mood?) Beyond these physical assets, Craig contributes a personal-best performance, admirably reinventing himself from the friendly-faced hedonist he played in The Mother and looking more and more like an invaluable actor in the repertory of British film. Morton, as in her Oscar-nominated turn from In America, is mostly here to be watchful and silently critical of her more extroverted lead actor. These films are her bid for regular-gal roles, and she deserves more of them, even if Claire remains a bit fuzzy. (This may be an inevitable limitation of the material.)

The vacillations between self-conscious symbolism and realist drama played straight is yet another key dynamic within this deeply ambivalent, deeply troubling, wholly absorbing movie. As in Jonathan Glazer's Birth and Pieter Jan Brugge's The Clearing, less "plot" unfolds in this drama than you might expect, and the dogged ellipticism surrounding most events and characters may well rub some viewers the wrong way. None of these three movies makes it hard for a casual viewer to nitpick and quibble, but all of them, maybe Enduring Love most of all, make a strong case for the value of uneven filmmaking. A huge and unpredictable emotional force continues to build through this film, and if it sometimes works in fits and starts, that very irregularity at least contributes to the psychological rhythms Michell is after. The script supplies only a few opportunities for catharsis, and never when you expect; this, too, feels like a fresh and rewarding choice.

Claire, renamed from the novel so as to further stress her essential lucidity, is convinced that Joe is aggravating himself (and, finally, everyone else) over a fairly minor incident—something, at least, that could have ended much worse than it did. For Joe and for Jed, though—and this accounts as much as anything for their cryptic union—the world as known seems to be at stake. You leave Enduring Love weirdly convinced that all three of these people are right, even though or perhaps because each of their positions has significantly switched by the picture's end. A tiny, guignol bit of business snuck into the end credits doesn't do anything helpful for the viewer's experience, but like most of the film's flaws, you instantly forgive it. Flubs like these won't stand a fighting chance in your memory compared to all the spine-tinglers and brain-teasers afoot in this movie. Enduring Love does what it promises. It endures. Grade: B+

National Board of Review: Special Mention for Excellence in Filmmaking

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