Samantha Morton’s face seems a perfect object for gazing on. No matter her cinematic context or expression, or even your projected desire, her wide, pale countenance and stunningly blue eyes form an ideally receptive yet unsolvable surface. She is all you might want to become, possess or view from a distance, a swirl of emotions ranging from melancholy to serene to blissful, simultaneously unreadable and utterly accessible, all yours and beyond reach.
In Enduring Love, Samantha Morton’s unfathomable face once more offers opportunity to want and imagine. Only this time, she plays your part, observing and yearning. For the film’s first few seconds, quite literally, her Claire appears in harmony with her world. On a lovely, sunny day’s picnic with her boyfriend Joe (Daniel Craig), she smiles. Just outside London, a green field stretches beyond them, the sky above placidly clear. And then the balloon.
That is, a hot-air balloon that swoops into the frame from over their heads, before crashing briefly into the ground nearby. A young boy stands alone in the basket, panicky, and a man, a middle-aged doctor it will turn out, hangs perilously to one of the dangling ropes, trying to bring the runaway contraption under control, to allow the child a chance to escape. Following a few seconds during which the situation barely registers, suddenly, Joe leaps to his feet and runs to help, while several other men also appear and do likewise.
The scene unfolds quickly, edited so hectically that it’s hard to parse, a subjective-seeming representation that initiates the film’s unnerving and compelling focus through Joe’s limited vision. The men grab ropes, the balloon seems ready to submit, and then the wind blows, or the boy opens the fiery valve that sends the thing up again. The balloon rises, the men hang, contemplating their options. And then they let go, one by one, dropping unharmed to the earth. All save the doctor, who hangs on until he can no longer, when he’s too high to fall safely, but instead plummets: seen from just over the boy’s head, his limbs flail and he recedes, until he splats, amid a quietly grazing herd of sheep.
Claire, having run to Joe’s side, watches all of this, her face turning to his shoulder in the last moments, the sight before them all too distant and too awful to comprehend. Joe and another man, scraggly-haired, gangly Jed (Rhys Ifans), head off to find the body. And so begins Claire and Joe’s terrible shake-up, as they come to question themselves and one another, losing faith and letting go of expectations they never imagined losing.
Based on Ian McEwan’s 1997 novel, Enduring Love is about unbearable loss and mounting self-doubt. As the novel comprised internal monologue, the film faces a perennial problem: how to make Joe’s increasingly irrational fears makes sense — to him, at least — from the outside, so they can be visible to the rest of us. Our trust in Joe’s self-understanding might devolve during the film, but the screen must chart and impel that shift. We’re not inside his head; we’re watching him collapse. Eventually, this intriguing narrative problem becomes quite insurmountable, as the hole Joe digs himself into must be finished during the film’s running time, and the “dramatic” end is less intriguing than all that has led to it.
Indeed, Joe spends most of the film agonizing over whether he was the first man to let go, whether their combined weight might have brought down the balloon and saved the doctor, and whether his act was selfish, cowardly, or maybe even “all he could do,” as his friend Robin (Bill Nighy) and his wife Rachel (Susan Lynch) suggest. He continues to lecture his auditorium full of university students, about the meaningless biology of sex and the delusion of romance, and Claire returns to her art (she’s a well-reviewed sculptor, most recently the subject of a feature in the Guardian).
Joe starts acting all Close Encounters, sketching balloons on scraps of paper and trying to reconstruct the event in his living room, filling party balloons with a hairdryer. His obsession is soon conveniently embodied when Jed arrives at his doorstep, suggesting they should “talk about what happened.” At first intrigued, even willing to mollify his strange visitor, Joe is soon put off by what seems his awkward intimacy, a sense of nearness without trust or understanding. His resulting uneasiness leads Joe to lash out at friends and relatives, whose carelessness he now sees as meaning something, though just what, he can’t say.
By the time Jed is full-on, Glenn-Closeishly stalking him — in restaurants, bookstores, his classroom — Joe is quite unable to manage his own feelings about it. Now, he wants meaning, however mythic, and can’t summon it. And so he starts to think that his longstanding resistance to meaning — specifically, romantic, idealistic, desirous meaning — might have been behind his decision to let go.
As far as Joe can see, as he’s increasingly wrapped up in his unmooring, Claire is unsupportive. He visits her at work — her studio or a warehouse where her team is making castings — where she’s too busy to appreciate his unease; “Maybe he’s lonely,” she offers. In desperation, Joe hurtles into his undone plan for that fateful day (which included champagne and a ring), asking Claire to marry him. By now, though, Claire has seen an alarming side of Joe, and she’s afraid too. They eat the tempura she’s made for his birthday, their silence amplified by their crunching, until she’s “had enough,” and starts slamming dishes, trying to clean up the mess she can’t figure out. He looks on her face and can’t see himself; she sees in him frustration and fearful aggression, not exactly the man she thought she loved.
At the same time, Jed sees in his new “soulmate” Joe everything he believes, and in Claire, a threatening “bitch.” It’s here that Enduring Love slides into a set of ugly clichés, as Jed becomes the homosexual menace, Joe the righteously phobic aggressor, and Claire the object onto which both men project their meanings. And she, faultless reflective surface that she is, can only become what they need.