Starring: Daniel Craig, Samantha Morton, Rhys Ifans, Corin Redgrave, and Bill Nighy
Director: Roger Michell
Writing Credits: Joe Penhall
Distributor: Paramount Classics (USA 2004)
Running Time: 100 minutes
Rated: R for language, some violence and a disturbing image

Amid all the awards hullabaloo that will inevitably drown the end of 2004, there's one tiny movie nearly certain to get lost. And that's a shame, because ENDURING LOVE, the surprising new glimpse into the rippling ramifications of emotion, is perhaps the most satisfying and moving offering currently available at the cinema. An astonishing taut thriller, this intense study of the human psyche boldly steps into tricky subject matter, thrillingly capturing its uniquely drawn characters inside a situational Mobius Strip. Love is a delicate thing, and identity even more so. ENDURING LOVE breathtakingly tears both asunder to find them anew, and it is, in a word, exquisite. It deserves your attention.

The first ten minutes of ENDURING LOVE are so striking, unexpected, and beautifully constructed that they threaten to overwhelm the remainder of the film (and spoilers will be revealed, so if you don't want to know, skip two paragraphs down): a young professor, Joe (Daniel Craig) and his sculptress girlfriend Claire (Samantha Morton), sit enjoying a picnic on a pristine, sloping field in the English countryside. The romantic scene is broken, however, by nothng less that a hot air balloon -- not in the air, mind you, but dragging along the ground. A boy is trapped inside, and many men, including Joe, run from seemingly everywhere to try to control the balloon's unsafe ascent. They catch it and hang on to the edge for a moment, but ultimately they fail, and one of them dies tragically. The survivors are bound by a profoundly shattering experience, a moment of humanity so odd that it changes everyone who experiences it.

There is no reason why Jed (Rhys Ifans), another of the men (with a profoundly religious mien), should find an immediate bond with Joe...after all, the event took mere moments. But Jed is not all he seems, and the connection he feels toward the suffering Joe transforms into a romantic fixation...a stalking, if you like. Joe, meanwhile, is trying to academically handle his own feelings of survivor guilt and isolation, and the presence of Jed only exacerbates his mental anguish. As Joe's relationship with Claire slowly disintegrates under the psychological weight, ENDURING LOVE becomes a pointed reminder of the tenuous fragility of human connection, and that chance and happenstance can upturn our lives forever. Frightening in its quiet power, the film argues that the only enduring thing in our lives is our need for others...and the terrifying reality that others may not be there for us.

ENDURING LOVE is directed by Roger Michell, the vastly underrated artist whose career peaks and valleys are well documented. Michell made a huge initial splash with Persuasion, conquered Hollywood with Notting Hill, famously passed on Shakespeare In Love to direct the critically-acclaimed flop Changing Lanes, and earlier this year stunned audiences with The Mother. In all of these films, the connecting thread is a focus on character rather than plot -- the human experience viewed through one's own perspective. In ENDURING LOVE, however, Michell achieves his finest and most textured analysis of human mores and motivations. The unnerving determination of Jed, the overanalyzing remoteness of Joe, the confused stoicism of Claire...each member of this love triangle are solar systems of behavior and impulse, colliding into and tumbling around each other in orbits that are never less than mesmerizing. The screenplay by playwright Joe Penhall (whose Blue/Orange premiered in London under the direction of Michell) is faithful to Ian McEwan's award-winning novel without being constrained by it. ENDURING LOVE is, ultimately, a formalist film about messy subjects, a struggle to make codified sense of our ephemeral and uncontrollable lives.

Michell has always managed to wring superb performances from his actors, and ENDURING LOVE is no exception. Daniel Craig, who brought such brute intensity to his hunky carpenter in The Mother, flips nearly 180 degrees in playing Joe, an academic who processes and understands his world through classification and explication. Confronted by the cruel abstraction of the balloon and the resolute passion of Jed, Craig deftly spins his fragile mental framework into a tailspin. In perfect counterpoint, Samantha Morton (Code 46) begins Claire with a grounded, calm peacefulness that slowly melts under her beloved's intense self-absorption. Lastly, Rhys Ifans (The Shipping News) strikes an almost otherworldly tone for Jed, a beatified conviction that not only puts the character into start relief, but counteracts the troubling politics that might occur in a story about a same-sex stalker. Ifans realizes the magic and the metaphysic in the idea of a love that endures...and the darkness that inhabits the shadows of such ideas.

It seems that contemplative visions are losing ground at the local movie house; modern storytelling places a primacy on plot over character, action over ideas, and speed over detail. ENDURING LOVE flouts all of this, engaging us in a character-driven experience that, in earlier times, might have been made by Schlesinger or Hitchcock. Films can always show us how to be better or worse as people; rare, though, are those that have the unique ability to make us more interesting, even to ourselves. For this, and for a million other tiny reasons, ENDURING LOVE approaches genius.

-- Gabriel Shanks

Review text copyright © 2004 Mixed Reviews. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Mixed Reviews or the author is prohibited.

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