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What's Love Got to Do With It?

Rhys Ifans in Enduring Love

Circumstances may have brought them together, but a single 'enduring' emotion may be driving Ian McEwan's characters toward a deranged date with destiny.

A lot of Sopranos fans were outraged when the series ended back on 10 June. The last episode had its moments, and yet during the final scene, pretty much nothing of consequence happened. And then the screen went abruptly black. Viewers were forced to draw their own conclusions as to what would become of Tony and his family. This angered a lot of people. Personally, I thought it was brilliant. I’ve always enjoyed a little mystery with my media and I like to think I’m creative enough to “fill in the blanks”.

If you’re the type of person who wants everything you read or watch spelled out for you and / or tied up in a tidy explanation, then don’t bother seeing Roger Mitchell’s film, Enduring Love, and definitely don’t read the Ian McEwan novel it is based on.

The book starts out simply enough. On a beautiful summer day in a meadow outside of Oxford, Joe Rose and his commonwealth wife, Clarissa Mellon, are picnicking. As Joe pops a bottle of champagne, he notices a hot air balloon floating by. He senses something isn’t right. As the balloon tumbles past, dangerously close to the ground, it appears unmanned. Then Joe sees a 10-year-old boy who is frozen in fear while his uncle, the pilot, struggles with the ripcord.

As Joe rushes to help, four other bystanders come out of the background. Together they help pull down the runaway vessel. Just when they think they’ve succeeded, a violent gust of wind suddenly pulls the balloon into the air again, with the men still dangling from the ripcord. As it ascends, it becomes clear to everyone that they will have to let go before the balloon gets too high. One by one, they drop to safety – all except someone named John Logan He hangs on too long and eventually falls to his death.

Roger Mitchell’s (of Knotting Hill and Changing Lanes fame) cinematic version of McEwan’s opening captures the sequence beautifully. Daniel Craig plays Joe and Samantha Morton plays Claire (her name is changed from Clarissa in the book). Just as McEwan describes in the novel, the two are picnicking on a green stretch of land when a brilliant red balloon skids past awkwardly. Inside the basket is a lone boy and below, struggling with the ripcord, is his panicked uncle. As if on queue, the four witnesses, as described, come from their corners of the field to help Joe wrestle the balloon back down to earth.

Everything goes along exactly as McEwan writes in his book, but with the added attraction of lush cinematography and an eerie, disturbing silence surrounding the action. As a result, the scene is brought to life with searing and disturbing authenticity. Everything intensifies after the men drop safely from the rope to the ground. We watch in horror as John Logan drifts away high into the air, clinging desperately to life. When he can no longer support himself, we see his miniature body, black against the blazing blue sky, fall into a field hundreds of yards away.

Joe decides to run to where the man has fallen to determine his condition. What he finds once he gets there is unsettling to say the least. In the book, McEwan describes Logan’s lifeless body as sitting upright looking like a “Picassoesque violation of perspective.” The way Mitchell interprets this in the film is highly disturbing and very effective. The dead man sits a little off kilter in the quiet, sunny pasture, innards spilling out of his suit and blood dribbling from his lip. Nearby, a flock of sheep chew their cud indifferently.

As Joe makes his unsettling discovery, Jed Parry, one of the men who witnessed the accident, appears and tells Joe they should pray. Joe politely refuses, saying that praying isn’t his sort of thing. Meeting this man becomes a pivotal moment in Joe’s emotional journey. The content and quiet existence he once cherished is suddenly uprooted. He is plagued by guilt for not being able to save Logan (Could he have done something different to change the disastrous outcome? Did he let go of the rope too soon?), and to make maters worse, Jed Parry begins to make bizarre and intrusive phone calls to him. Parry, a religious fanatic and loner, believes that he and Joe were meant to be together and that the accident happened in order to merge their lives. He begins following him everywhere and waiting outside of his London flat. Jed becomes so focused on Joe that he makes Tom Ripley from The Talented Mr. Ripley look like a mild pest by comparison.

Rhys Ifans is outright terrifying as Parry. Stringy blonde hair hangs in his eyes and he wears a constant look of mild surprise on his round face as he creeps around, turning up wherever Joe does. Now, in the book, it’s unclear if Parry really exists at all. McEwan leads his readers to believe that Parry could be a symptom of Joe’s imagination – possibly the result of some Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Additionally, Clarissa doesn’t take Joe seriously (on the page or the film) when he tells her how crazy Parry is. Instead of support, all she can offer is skepticism.

Naturally, her lack of interest begins to take its toll on their relationship. In the novel, there is more insight into why she doesn’t take Joe’s side. This includes a scene where she accuses Joe of writing the lengthy, cryptic letters Parry has been sending him and reveals that they’re written in Joe’s handwriting (this material is absent in the film). This is a key moment in EcEwan’s story, and for me it is the most interesting part of the book. As you read on, you begin to wonder if she isn’t right and that Parry is perhaps something Joe’s has dreamt up in his own fragile psyche.

In the film, however, Parry is very real and Clarissa never makes the accusation concerning the letters. Ifans makes up for the missing plot twist by upping the psychological ante and serenading Joe with “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys while a classroom full of his bewildered students look on. This is something that never happens in the book, but is an appropriate and bone chilling addition. Speaking of which, Daniel Craig gives a spot-on performance as Joe. He’s handsome in that professor kind of way, wearing glasses and talking to himself under his breath as he tries to make sense of his secret stalker. At the end of the film, he shares a kiss with Ifans that’s so tense, it made my clench my teeth.

Daniel Craig in Enduring Love

So why is Jed stalking Joe? The question is never really answered, although the film tries to make more sense of it than the book, inferring that Jed is a fan of Joe’s (having read all of the scientific books he’s written). In the novel, Joe’s motivation is more open to interpretation. Whatever the reason, Jed keeps telling Joe that he loves him. Of course this sounds crazy, but the concept of love and what it is reflects accurately on the story’s focal point. Joe keeps asking himself this question, both in the book and in the film: What is love? Is it merely a chemical response that happens to us physically, or is it something more ephemeral and arcane?

Because he’s a man of science, Joe leans towards the more rational explanations having to do with biology when trying to make sense of the question. Jed, who has a hippyish Jesus freak quality to him, relies on the concepts of fate and divine intervention to guide his crazed conclusions. The tension between these two men and the concepts they each represent are at the heart of both McEwan’s and Mitchell’s emotionally charged creations. While neither the book nor the film ever really decides what love is, each does a remarkable job of examining the question. Granted, having to fill in the blanks can be frustrating. But in either version of Enduring Love, it remains fascinating, and fulfilling.

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