The red balloon from Enduring Love (Image courtesy of Paramount Classics)
One of this autumn’s most worthwhile films, the British drama Enduring Love, has received such an unfair and uninformed drubbing from the American press that the movie isn’t reaching the audience it deserves. Meanwhile—if you’ll forgive a digression—those same reviewers have showered accolades on the inept, incompetent, badly written drivel known as Kinsey, assuring by the tweaked volume of their praise that Bill Condon’s joke of a film will be regarded seriously in the public eye.
My recent excoriation of Kinsey (among other cinematic travesties) prompted Bill White, a scribe at one of the Seattle dailies, to ask, “Why isn’t anyone else writing critically?” I suggested collective cowardice. Hand-in-glove with the timorousness that defines movie analyses, there’s an astonishing lack of taste and insight in the persons paid to herd consumer approval. How does Jonathan Glazer’s audacious film Birth receive an abundance of cheap-shot raspberries while naked dreck—The Polar Express, Sideways, I Heart Huckabees—meets with reviewers’ adulation? (It’s worth remembering that Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo was near-universally panned upon its 1958 release, a testimony to the timelessness of mainstream critics’ mediocrity.) But to resume quoting Bill: “Movies like Huckabees are easy for them to praise, because they are made by three-year-olds operating within a similar schema. Personally, I saw no difference between Surviving Christmas and Huckabees, any more than I did between Spiderman 2 and Catwoman. The critics sit there watching what is essentially the same crap, but implying an imaginary worth to the one nearest their own abandoned craniums.” Bravo!
Enduring Love (Joe Penhall adapted Ian McEwan’s novel) opens unto an English landscape, a countryside idyll of chirping birds, pale blue sky, lush green fields, and a magnificently composed shot of a sloping hill that bisects the length of the screen. Enter Joe (Daniel Craig), an author and a literature professor, with his lady-friend Claire (Samantha Morton) for a picnic and a bit of bubbly. Joe hasn’t uncorked the champagne, however, when a runaway, garnet-red hot-air balloon swoops into the frame behind him. A riveting progression arises of men chasing the balloon, catching and for a second stabilizing it, then Morton re-enters the scene, and at the sight of her, one man lets go. Then, with a spectacular leap, the men are borne aloft. Four of them jump before the balloon reaches too great a height. A fifth hangs on, then plunges into a horrifying fall. I decided to go ahead and look, rather than avert my eyes, at the gory remains of his body below. I wished I hadn’t. The needlessly graphic dead body, nonetheless, serves the same function as Marion Crane’s early demise via shower in Psycho: though nothing quite so explicit is shown again, the sense of dread and unease—the fear of violence—remains dominant in our expectations, in the mood of the film.
Roger Michell’s visual invention doesn’t end with this opening sequence. Cut to a darkly lit table for four where the director uses flickering candle flames, reflected in wine glasses, as the primary source of light. Joe and Claire relive their pastoral trauma as dinner conversation with friends. The tense exchange between these companions establishes Joe’s persistent unease with the tragedy; he has a brooding case of survivor’s guilt, and in a splendid visual pun, the camera pulls away from the table aerially—lifts straight up, as might a balloon. It’s Michell signifying that Joe still has a long way to ascend on this particular trip. And the cinematographer, Haris Zambarloukos, lavishes one stunning image after another throughout Enduring Love, rending miracles in reflective surfaces (architectural masterpieces viewed through the prism of car windows) and using the dark green palette of Claire’s studios (she’s a sculptor) as well as the leafy, daylight exteriors to enticingly shadowy effect.
Jeremy Sams, who wrote the music for Michell’s previous film, composes another evocative score. This one is less obviously jazz-based: Sams replaces the Jarrett-esque trio of The Mother with a plaintive jazz piano, heard only occasionally, against a mesh of dark, orchestral strings. The piano takes gently quizzical “steps” up and down the keyboard. (To my regret, I don’t know who the pianist is; he or she suggests Bud Powell as he might have sounded playing Poulenc.) To the music, Michell supplies shades of Vertigo, as Joe obsessively re-stages the accident on paper, sketching balloons, weighing equations of probability and outcome. Later, he revisits the field, and imagines reconstructing the scene—variations on who arrived when or with whom. That plinking jazz piano accompanies these haunted daydreams of a man determined to turn back the clock. He’s as carried away by the phantom of bringing that balloon back to earth as Scottie Ferguson was in making Judy into Madeleine.
As Joe, the handsome Daniel Craig (born in 1968) embodies the very model of a modern, if not major, intellectual. Manohla Dargis, from her perch in the New York Times, complained that Craig doesn’t look professorial. Which rather makes me wonder if no-no-Manohla has ventured on a college campus in the last half-decade. From what I’ve observed of young professors at the University of Washington, aged 40 and under, they’re cut from the same stud cloth—sporting near-identical eyeglasses, haircuts, and the same lot of privileged liberal assumptions. They made not all be as well built as Craig (looking buff in his white briefs) or chain-smoke cigarettes as forcefully, but the intellectual hunk with academic cred is a cultural type very much in the ascendancy (again, the balloon rises).
The arresting presence of Coltrane’s “Naima” overlaps a few scenes—in a café as a boorish friend of Claire and Joe’s confesses lust for his children’s au pair, then again on the Northern London streets as Joe and Claire contentedly traipse home, and finally as Craig and Morton tumble into bed. Besides serving as an aural counterpoint to Sams’ astringent orchestral colors, this urban British borrowing of American jazz saxophone recalls (and implies an homage to) Sonny Rollins’ brilliant score in the original Alfie. And something else becomes clear: if anyone were going to remake Lewis Gilbert’s film, presumably with a smattering of its social content intact, it should have been Michell rather than that ghastly hack Charles Shyer. And who would make an irresistibly rakish womanizer? Why, Daniel Craig—Jude Law’s near-exact contemporary but an actor vastly more talented and—this must be said—infinitely sexier than Law, if only because Craig hasn’t ceased to be about something other than his sexuality. (Dargis, incidentally, who’s quick to savage ambitious works, gave the Alfie remake a free ride.)
Morton’s Claire, who sculpts lifelike, three-dimensional faces in her studio (“My work,” she states with a simple flatness), shares with Craig’s Joe, in the early scenes, love banter reminiscent of Woody Allen’s rapid-fire, neurotic Manhattanites. As the camera tracks them through assorted chambers, Joe playfully chastises Claire for casting his hands, but not his face or his feet. She’s cast their friend Robin’s face, so why not Joe? When he says to her, “Wellllll, try!” Craig’s timbre sounds uncannily like Cary Grant’s. These morsels are played in profile, or with the actors’ backs to the camera, teasingly photographed medium shots.
Why are the majority of film reviewers so deaf, dumb, and blind to the pleasures of Enduring Love? Even the few who claim to appreciate the movie narrowly focus their comments on plot, plot, plot, as if story were all, and not so much as a mention of the extraordinary look, sound, and layered texture—the qualities that make it unique. These reviews (on the web or in print) that tell you everything about a movie, yet nothing about the experience of the movie, are insufferably dull reading. Who cares about a cataloguing of every narrative point? A movie is never “about” its subject, but how a director and his or her collaborators treat or portray or shape the subject. Hitchcock knew this. And still we have, by the bushel, insipid “critics”—with no apparent interest or knowledge in photography or music—dutifully, mindlessly recounting what happens, as if their impulse to write were no more than a homework assignment. And editors let them.
When Joe lunches with one of his similarly self-possessed literary friends, their talk of Joe’s next book is interrupted by Rhys Ifans as Jed, one of the witnesses to the hot-air balloon catastrophe. Jed rather spoils the editorial ambiance by forthrightly stating: “We can’t go on like this, Joe. Just give into it.” Jed, with his nasty, icky, lank blond hair, his grimy wardrobe of worn T-shirts, baggy jeans, and a pale grey Members Only jacket that’s two decades out of style, keeps popping up in Joe’s life, unannounced, unwanted, full of unusual observations. He compliments Joe for having such a “firm grip on the curtains…not messing around.” Ifans taps into seemingly boundless comic wellsprings, yet he never overdoes Jed. In a boldly inventive bit, Jed infiltrates one of Joe’s university lectures and lustily serenades him with a show tune in front of the befuddled students who must wonder—is their aloof professor gay? And if he is, why would he have an affair with the unattractive, unwashed crooner in their midst? The moment is an absolute dream collision of two different worlds. And Michell/Penhall chase it with a confrontation in the street that illumines not only the gulf between Jed and Joe, but the thrilling clash between Ifans and Craig’s acting styles, their physiognomies. Jed finally loses his unbalanced even temper and swears. He swears from the deep hurt of unrequited “love.” It’s a testament to the sureness of the actors and filmmakers that in this scene Jed, in his insane way, seems strangely…inevitably right.
There are two brilliantly inspired scenes that involve a playground across the street from Joe and Claire’s flat. In the first, during a middle-of-the-night downpour, Joe frantically demonstrates differentiations in curtain signals to the half-asleep Claire, who can’t be stirred from her drowsy haze to peek at the eye-opening nightmare in view from the exposed window. The next day, Joe, after falling-out violently with Claire, wanders into the playground as rain falls. Expecting to find Jed still keeping vigil from the night prior, Joe, in a rage, becomes even more unhinged when Jed isn’t there. In a highly significant move (a bravura turn from Zambarloukos), the camera arcs and circles around and around the wet Joe alone in the park, the crescendos of the string orchestra heard now without the hesitant piano.
It’s in this amazing, uncharted reaction of Joe’s (and, of course, the way he’s photographed) that the movie arrives at a new level of emotional complexity. The Hitchcock/De Palma leitmotifs subside to the contradictory, even confounding moods present in Michael Powell’s most memorable work. Like Powell, Michell gropes in dark places, not in a lurid, exploitative, American sort of way but with a potent alchemy of elegance and tough-mindedness. Undercurrents of Peeping Tom and The Red Shoes reverberate (especially in the fate of the Samantha Morton character), yet Enduring Love comes closer to the psychological twists of Black Narcissus. Both movies acquaint us with the dread feeling that our decency and cultivation aren’t enough to stop a lunatic from destroying what we’ve striven so hard for.
The reviewers, who’ve somehow missed every gem in the mine, the hacks whose frames of reference extend only as far as Adrian Lyne movies (again, Dargis), carp that Enduring Love, to its detriment, begins as one species and ends as another. I disagree. Michell masterfully weaves disparate elements (dry comedy, suspense thriller, character study, and art for art’s sake) to create a work of seamless unity. – NPT
November 19, 2004