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Air Sickness 

Fear, loathing and Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love

Thursday, Oct 28 2004
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Photo by Nicola Dove

Enduring Love, a thrilling film based on the fascinatingly uneven novel of the same name by British writer Ian McEwan, is a horror movie covering for a worried meditation on the fragility of the modern couple. One way or another, breakable partnerships tremble at the heart of almost every tale of urban horror that McEwan, a Booker Prize winner and darling of critics up and down the literary scale, has spun. McEwan is a curious anomaly in the realm of the domestic novel. He writes in the clean, descriptive prose of a master realist, yet his couples are threatened less by the made-for-TV-movie sociology that trips off pundits’ tongues — the untethering of love and marriage from family and community, serial marriage, commitment phobia, the increase in childless unions, the gauntlet thrown down by feminism to traditional divisions of marital labor — than by some terrifying external event, more often than not the intrusion of an unhinged third party who draws out the weaknesses in the most orderly domestic arrangements.

This is undoubtedly why so many of McEwan’s books become movies, and though he may have a Hollywood pitch in mind when he writes, it may also be that he’s a genuinely kinky bastard. I admire McEwan’s work, but I have mixed feelings about his inner horrormeister, which seems to me to reflect, on the one hand, a literary hipster’s unease with pure realism (a form at which he excels) and, on the other, a kind of evasive emotional distancing from his characters and the everyday messes we all routinely get into. Who needs horror, though, when the infinite variety of marital wreckage all around us is drama enough? In Paul Schrader’s overwrought 1991 movie based on McEwan’s overwrought novel The Comfort of Strangers, Rupert Everett and Natasha Richardson play a vacationing couple whose encounter with a creepy stranger, played by Christopher Walken, exposes the fault lines in their troubled marriage — with ritual murder for dessert. For my taste both the novel and the film were breathy and pretentious, not to mention improbable. McEwan’s finest novel by far, The Child in Time, about a couple whose marriage is all but destroyed by the theft of their child from a supermarket, has never been adapted for the big screen — it lacks his trademark blood and guts, and may be too close to something that could actually happen. Enduring Love, too, rests on a plausible premise — relationship unraveled by a stalker — but its British director, Roger Michell, strikes an assured balance between intense mood piece and Gothic chiller.

The movie opens with a stunning juxtaposition of bucolic pleasure and pure dread, accomplished in eerie silence. Joe and Claire, an attractive young couple picnicking in a sunlit field of emerald-green grass, uncork a bottle of champagne. Joe is launching into a speech, possibly a marriage proposal, when suddenly a dark shadow falls over them, followed by a huge, blood-red hot-air balloon bouncing in the field, apparently out of control, with a panicked boy in its basket and an older man fighting to keep the huge contraption grounded. Along with several other bystanders who rush to help, Joe grabs one of several ropes that dangle from the basket. Together they all rise higher and higher into the air, then, still in silence but as if by mutual agreement, they let go one by one and drop to the ground, except for one older man, who clings to the rope for what seems an eternity until at last he, too, falls to earth, arms flailing. Minutes later his body is found by Joe and a rumpled young man named Jed, who implores a visibly discomfited Joe to get down on his knees and pray with him. In the weeks that follow this trauma, both the stranger and the memory of that body, sitting upright but collapsed into itself at an unnerving angle, will reduce Joe’s and Claire’s lives to rubble.

 

An odd duck on the movie map, Michell has shown himself equally adept at crass commercialism (the unspeakably manipulative Notting Hill, and Changing Lanes) and the intelligently literary (Persuasion, one of the very best Jane Austen interpretations). Enduring Love tilts toward the latter, but Michell also deploys the Hollywood hack in him to splendid advantage, punching up the thriller quotient and scattering reminders of that red balloon everywhere in Joe’s orbit. Broadly faithful to the spirit of McEwan’s novel, he has also sexed it up by making its protagonists far hipper than those in the novel. Thus Joe, an ungainly, balding science writer in the novel, is retooled in the movie as some sort of professor (I couldn’t figure out of what, since his unusually lucky students spend their time listening to him riff endlessly on love and sex), played by the hunky Daniel Craig (Sylvia’s Ted Hughes). Claire, a professor of English literature in the novel, is now an acclaimed sculptor, well played by Samantha Morton in what must surely be her first stint as a functioning creature of this planet.

For all their glamour, there’s something opaque and ill-defined about Joe and Claire — we can’t quite see what binds them, aside from a certain Sunday-magazine lifestyle chic. The movie, like the novel, belongs to Jed, who’s superbly played with a kind of insidious vulnerability by Welsh actor Rhys Ifans, memorable for his role as Hugh Grant’s feckless flatmate in Notting Hill. By turns whiny and threatening, this religious nutball attaches himself to Joe like a leech and follows him everywhere, imploring his increasingly enraged victim to give in to what he sees as their predestined mutual attraction. Like all psychotics, Jed is locked into a psychotic inner logic no amount of reason can dislodge, and he’s found a perfect mark in Joe, a stubborn rationalist given to musing aloud in class that we may be biologically programmed for love merely “to ensure a fuck,” yet whose cerebral positivism is shaken by the tragedy he’s witnessed. Worse, Jed has also brought to the surface a fundamental clash of temperament between Joe and Claire, an uncomplicated woman guided by love and instinct, who finds herself increasingly frightened and alienated by Joe’s billowing obsession with Jed, not to mention his guilt over having failed to save the man who fell to earth.

Expertly and with agonizing deliberateness, Michell ratchets up the tension among this appalling triangle. A weapon appears and is used — twice — but the violence of the denouement doesn’t detract from a finale that has less to do with death than with McEwan’s recurring theme, the underground anxieties that course through the most seemingly perfect of unions. It’s not only Joe and Claire who find the ties that bind looser than they’d thought. Enduring Love is riddled with fractured couples: Claire’s married brother has taken off with his dim bulb of an au pair, the widow of the would-be rescuer is convinced her husband was having an affair, and, later in the movie, a secret May-December romance emerges. Perhaps to offset all this anguish, Michell and screenwriter Joe Penhall have installed a happy marriage that was not in the novel — a remarried couple (played by the wonderful Bill Nighy and Susan Lynch) surrounded by children that is perhaps a tribute to McEwan himself, who has a second wife and at least four kids. For McEwan, it’s often the absence of children, as much as any deus ex machina, that gets a couple into trouble. Still, I wonder what it says about his faith in love and/or marriage that by far the most powerful and, in its twisted way, persuasive relationship in Enduring Love — a willfully ambiguous title that leaves you wondering whether it refers to love that lasts or love that must be endured — is unrequited, homoerotic and doomed from the get-go.

ENDURING LOVE | Directed by ROGER MICHELL | Written by JOE PENHALL | Adapted from the novel by IAN McEWAN | Produced by KEVIN LOADER | Released by Paramount Classics | At the Grove, Landmark’s Westside Pavilion and the Mann Criterion

Reach the writer at etaylor@laweekly.com

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