You have to admire a movie that seems determined to thwart your most basic assumptions at every turn. And that's Enduring Love, an iconoclastic meditation on human devotion that might as easily be condemning its titular emotion as lauding it.
Based on Ian McEwan's 1998 novel, the film details the fallout of a spectacular mishap that's outlandish enough to ring true: the appearance of a runaway hot-air balloon on a lush picnic green. An ad hoc group of rescuers rushes to save the young passenger who's trapped inside; that boy's fate, however, is far less important to the movie than what happens to the rescue team after the incident is over. One man dies in the attempt, wrapping a shroud of existential doubt over survivor Joe Rose (Daniel Craig), a university professor whose lectures are windows into his deepening nihilism.
When the balloon alit, Joe was about to propose to his sweetheart (Samantha Morton). With that emotional commitment now drowning in a sea of ennui, Joe finds himself being sucked into an unlikely, unsolicited relationship with Jed Parry (Rhys Ifans), another would-be rescuer who keeps seeking him out for some impromptu bonding. Except for the minor detail that they don't know each other from Adam, they're like war buddies with hugely disparate methods of coping with a shared tragedy.
Jed's beatific talk of divine forgiveness has us dreading the idea that the character may be a spiritual emissary from on high, sent to reclaim Joe's soul. He certainly seems to fancy himself an expert in God's teachings. In a lesser story, the mutual healing would flow ingratiatingly from there. Not so Enduring Love, which director Roger Michell (The Mother, Changing Lanes, Notting Hill) and screenwriter Joe Penhall (a playwright by reputation) twist into a motivational pas de deux of deepening consequence. The more Jed darkens Joe's doorstep, the more he takes on the unsettling aspect of a demonic tormentor the exact opposite of the benign persona he seeks to cultivate. Over time, we come to suspect that his fixation with Joe is no selfless rehabilitation project, but an obsession that's unhealthy at the very least.
Engaging as it is, that gradual transformation brings its own set of problems. With every ominous look from Jed, you can feel the film veering disquietingly toward becoming a laddish Single White Female or, more accurately, Fatal Attraction re-envisaged as a buddy picture. While it's probably unfair to assail the "obsession" plot as homophobic, the movie doesn't totally shrink from the charge, either. But if provocation is what Enduring Love is up to, it carries the uncommon benefit of remaining authentically shocking throughout. A large measure of the credit lies with Ifans, who takes full advantage of the opportunity to stand his standard image of puppy-dog likeability on its head. (This is not your father's Danny Deckchair.) With his earnest but vaguely threatening countenance out in front, the movie pushes a conception of love as neither an inherently positive nor a negative force. In the eyes of McEwan, Michell and Penhall, it's a dangerous chemical a volatile substance that can explode when handled in the wrong way.