The deceptively simple title of the British drama Enduring Love has at least two meanings: On the one hand, it suggests that love is a glorious affair that never ends; on the other, it warns that love is something we're forced to suffer if we want to affirm our fragile humanity. Those are some of the ideas the movie asks us to slog through, along with its weighty, turgid, unsatisfying answers.
Directed by Roger Michell, who made the pleasant Notting Hill, and based on a novel by Ian McEwan -- whose earlier book, The Comfort of Strangers, became a wonderfully lurid psychological drama directed by Paul Schrader -- Enduring Love takes place among teachers and artists who own wine racks that supply potables for frequent small intimate dinner parties with very close friends.
The film opens well enough, on rolling hills in the English countryside. Philosophy professor Joe (Daniel Craig) and his sculptress/lover Claire (Samantha Morton) have stopped to sit on a blanket and share some champagne from plastic cups. Then, a hot-air balloon appears, careening out of control across the grass, just close enough to the ground for Joe and a few other men in the surrounding fields to attempt to wrestle it to the ground.
When the balloon takes off again, they're forced to let go and drop to safety. But one man doesn't let go, and when he finally falls to his death, the impact splits his body in two.
This is all understandably hard for Joe to handle. But his recovery (sans therapy) is complicated by the ubiquitous Jed (Rhys Ifans), a shaggy sad-sack who also participated in the rescue attempt, and who, back in the city, begins to show up everywhere in Joe's life, claiming that the two men are obviously in love because of the signals Joe sent him on the day they met. The anxiety of this eventually causes Joe to devolve into violence -- a philosopher's worst nightmare.
There's not much pleasure in watching an unbalanced gay man stalk his imagined heterosexual lover -- at least, not the way they do it here. The three fine lead actors perform so casually that they almost seem to be improvising. Apart from that small reward, Enduring Love is profundity at its most transparent, in part because it's two movies: one about a man who witnessed a tragic epiphany, the other (like Comfort of Strangers) about perverse sexual obsession.
I'm usually a sucker for movies about the stark miserable world. To paraphrase, we all go a little sad sometimes. But nothing much comes of Enduring Love besides sluggish drama and ideological dead weight: It's navel-gazing that never rises to the level of penetrating solipsism. Is love real, or is it just a pathetic illusion? Does anything mean anything at all? Feel free to grapple with all of this if you like -- 10 pages minimum, double-spaced, due Tuesday in class.