Story of an insidious stalker disrupting the lives of an intellectual London couple is handled in a bracing and distinctive manner. Despite pic's success on the elemental-thriller level, among several others, unpleasant nature of the goings-on spells limited commercial appeal.

Story of an insidious stalker disrupting the lives of an intellectual London couple is handled in a bracing and distinctive manner in “Enduring Love.” Adaptation of Ian McEwan’s 1997 novel takes a surprising number of liberties with the text, given the author’s stature, but his name on the credits as associate producer would suggest his stamp of approval. Despite pic’s success on the elemental-thriller level, among several others, unpleasant nature of the goings-on spells limited commercial appeal. Nevertheless, the film stands as a strong achievement for director Roger Michell, scenarist Joe Penhall and the cast, notably lead Daniel Craig.

In its unusual synthesis of somewhat abstracted compositions and latent powder-keg emotionalism, “Enduring Love” sometimes reminds in a good way of such ’60s British art films as the Losey-Pinter “Accident.” Stylistically, the film is very alive, with Michell hanging back at times, only to repeatedly snap the viewer to attention with dynamic handling of scenes that cut to the core of how the protagonist’s life is being attacked and corrupted by his unshakable nemesis.

Yarn is triggered by a bizarre accident that dramatically changes the lives of everyone in its proximity. On a day when Joe Rose (Craig), a vigorous-minded science professor, has brought his longtime girlfriend Claire (Samantha Morton) to the countryside for a picnic, the sight of a runaway hot-air balloon disrupts the idyllic English summer atmosphere. There is a young boy on board and a man on the ground desperately trying to rein it in. In the chaotic action that quickly follows, several men in the area, including Joe, run up and grab the basket and dangling ropes to try to hold it down.

But when a sudden gust of wind lofts the balloon and the screaming boy suddenly upward, the men more or less simultaneously let go — except for one, who some moments later loses his grip and hurtles fatally to the ground as the others watch aghast.

As upsetting as the incident is, it’s difficult for Joe to know how to react or what to feel. Since the balloon later floated down with the young passenger unscathed, there’s the sense that the dead would-be rescuer, a family man named Logan, perished for nothing. But there is the conflicting suspicion that, if all the other men had held on rather than let go, everything would have been fine. Then there is Joe’s need to believe that he wasn’t the first to abandon ship.

But one man present for the calamity knows exactly how he feels. When they come upon Logan’s broken body on the plain, one of the group, Jed (Rhys Ifans), who asks a reluctant Joe to kneel down and pray, feels something pass between them. It’s a love and complicity shot through with God’s blessing, and it isn’t long before he begins calling Joe at home asking him to meet, standing outside his flat and approaching him in public, all with the aim of coaxing Joe to acknowledge the obvious and “give into it.”

Calmly rational on one hand but self-involved, quick tempered and, as Claire points out, “overwrought” on the other, Joe tends to be short and dismissive with Jed, an obvious misfit and loner who simply won’t be denied no matter how brusquely he’s treated. Unable to call in the authorities since Jed hasn’t done anything illegal, Joe tries different tactics to rid himself of this pest, a gangly, forlorn figure with long stringy hair and poor hygiene. But the more he’s rejected, the more persistent Jed becomes, until a violent showdown becomes all but inevitable.

Directly due to Jed’s assault, Joe and Claire’s relationship steadily deteriorates. As the double-edged title suggests, the novel is greatly interested in exploring how much strain a love can take and in charting the small ways in which intimacy is eroded. Film is perhaps weakest in this area, as the potential for fine detail and interior shifts is greater in literature; this is no fault of the performers, however, who dive in fearlessly and invest their work with pulsing emotional energy.

Craig creates a Joe more dynamic than he is on the page, his intellectual gears constantly turning and his rages exploding with scary fury. Ifans morphs from seemingly harmless oaf to chilling predator in imperceptible stages, to strong effect, while Morton, restricted by a more reactive role, still conveys smarts and a well gauged amorous chill.

Screenwriter Penhall, whose 2000 play “Blue/Orange” was directed by Michell and won a raft of awards, altered many aspects of McEwan’s novel, from small things such as the central couple’s professions, their social status and the woman’s name to significant matters including the addition of two “best friend” characters (Bill Nighy and Susan Lynch), the elimination of Joe’s descent into the criminal underworld to retaliate against Jed (scenes that might well have seemed too familiarly “movieish” in this context) and a major change to the climax. It all goes down quite convincingly.

Michell and lenser Haris Zambarloukos adventurously mix bold distanced compositions with some rough-and-ready handheld camerawork to vital effect, with Nic Gaster’s tense editing and Jeremy Sams’ unusually orchestrated, sometimes dissonant score adding to the impact.

Enduring Love

U.K.

Production

A Paramount Classics (in U.S.), Pathe (in U.K.) release of a Paramount Classics and Pathe Pictures presentation in association with the U.K. Film Council and FilmFour and in association with Inside Track of a Free Range Films production. (International sales: Pathe Intl., London.) Produced by Kevin Loader. Executive producers, Francois Ivernel, Cameron McCracken, Duncan Reid, Tessa Ross. Directed by Roger Michell. Screenplay, Joe Penhall, based on the novel by Ian McEwan.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Haris Zambarloukos; editor, Nicolas Gaster; music, Jeremy Sams; production designer, John-Paul Kelly; supervising art director, Emma Macdevitt; set decorator, Sara Wan; costume designer, Natalie Ward; sound (Dolby Digital), Danny Hambrook; line producer, Rosa Romero; associate producer, McEwan; assistant director, Barrie McCulloch; second unit camera, Jake Polonsky; stunt coordinator/second unit, Jim Dowdall; casting, Mary Selway, Fiona Weir. Reviewed at Sunset screening room, Los Angeles, Aug. 24, 2004. (In Telluride Film Festival; in Toronto Film Festival -- Special Presentations.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 97 MIN.

With

Joe Rose - Daniel Craig Jed - Rhys Ifans Claire - Samantha Morton Robin - Bill Nighy Rachel - Susan Lynch Mrs. Logan - Helen McCrory TV Producer - Andrew Lincoln Professor - Corin Redgrave

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