Directed by Roger Michell, starring Daniel Craig, Rhys Ifans, Samantha Morton, Bill Nighy, Andrew Lincoln, Helen McCrory and Susan Lynch.
Adaptations are strange beasts. Novels, whether good or bad, allow readers to wander, to imagine, to speculate. Everybody forms mental images of what it is they are reading, and it is always interesting to see how others interpret certain characters, situations and storylines. Adaptations rarely improve upon the original material, but when done right ('The Remains of the Day', 'Schindler's List') they can almost be viewed as a companion piece; when done badly ('The Human Stain', 'Charlotte Gray') they can sully the original work.
Roger Michell's adaptation of Ian McEwan's 1997 novel falls somewhere between the two extremes, but is closer to the positive end. A narrative largely consisting of three characters, McEwan's novel is not an obvious choice for the screen. It is limited in its range, which makes you wonder how it would fare over 100 minutes or so on film. It shouldn't work, but it doesn't fail.
Like the novel, the film has a brilliant opening. Joe (Craig) and girlfriend Claire (Morton) are enjoying a sun-kissed picnic when they notice a man struggling to keep a hot air balloon grounded. Worse still, a petrified young boy is in the balloon's basket. Joe rushes to help, as do three other men, but when the balloon begins to rise all of the men bar one let go of the ropes. The man who holds on, GP John Logan, is lifted higher and higher before eventually falling to his death far into the distance.
It is this chilling event that acts as the kernel of 'Enduring Love'. When Joe is asked by Jed (Ifans) – one of the men who rushed to help – to kneel and pray at the site where Logan has fallen to earth, he reluctantly agrees. For Joe, it's an act of solidarity to humour Jed; for the latter, it marks the beginning of nightmarish infatuation.
McEwan's novel is largely concerned with the internal motivations of his characters, and this presents its own difficulties. Michell's film certainly falters in parts, but it does manage to capture the anxiety and turmoil of the book in a way that feels authentic. Jed is much more than a gay bunny boiler, and while there is a sexual angle to his obsession, it's subordinate to a more devout desire. The connection that he believes he has to Joe is beyond sex, and is elevated in his own diseased mind to something approaching salvation.
It is this friction between the two that gave McEwan's book its most interesting thread, with Joe's increasingly frustrated attempts to set Jed straight, as it were, met with renewed determination and desperation. The film makes capital of this face-off. As Joe, Daniel Craig is excellent. This is easily one of the best things he has done, and his natural intensity and sense of latent aggression lend Joe a spiky, erratic quality. Most who have read 'Enduring Love' will find little fault with Craig, his anguish writ large as he battles with eviscerating guilt and overwhelming helplessness.
But if Craig nails it, Rhys Ifans as Jed screws it up. Ifans is just plain wrong. He doesn't look right, he doesn't sound right, and he lacks the refinement and subtlety which his character was screaming out for. Jed is ill, and very creepy, but he's smart. As played by Ifans, he's just a lonely layabout with a Britpop mullet.
It would have been interesting to see what McEwan would have done with the screenplay, but writer Joe Penhall won't incur the novelist's wrath with this version. Having read the novel allows its own advantages, but this still stands on its own as a quietly compelling, thought-provoking effort.