In the opening moments of Enduring Love (both Roger Michell's movie and Ian McEwan's inspirational source novel), a hot air balloon dips silently into a field, a beautiful anomaly trailing awful horror in its wake. Inside are a small boy and an elderly man, the latter of whom is soon engaged in a life and death struggle to lash the flailing craft to the ground even as the winds threaten to whip it once more into the great unknown. As the balloon again looses the surly bonds of the earth, with the small and wailing child still huddling in its ascending basket, a group of disparate strangers charge to lend their weight to the battle.
"We were running towards a catastrophe," wrote Mc-Ewan in his novel, "which itself was a kind of furnace in whose heat identities and fates would buckle into new shapes." Among those rushing headlong into the abyss are Joe (McEwan's narrator, handsomely portrayed on screen by the hypnotically photogenic Daniel Craig) and Jed, an unemployed loner teetering on the brink of an eroto-religious delusion. While chaos reigns on the ground, from the sky the scene adopts an eerie romanticism, with Joe and Jed "rushing towards each other like lovers . . . The encounter that would unhinge us was minutes away, its enormity disguised from us not only by the barrier of time but by the colossus in the centre of the field that drew us in with the power of a terrible ratio that set fabulous magnitude against the puny human distress at its base."
As even this brief extract illustrates, Mc-Ewan's novel is at once immensely cinematic and problematically prosaic - the latter quality leading some commentators to dub it as definitively "unfilmable". Indeed, despite the spectacularly visual nature of the opening (which becomes even more weirdly magical on screen), much of the ensuing drama, in which Jed (Rhys Ifans) becomes fixated with a guilt-wracked Joe, consists of edgy encounters between people in rooms - an interior melodrama played out in the minds of the protagonists. In lesser hands, this could easily have resulted in an extremely lop-sided viewing experience - a film that starts with an incident of extraordinary eye-catching splendour only to settle down into dreary kitchen-sink familiarity. Yet from the breathtaking beauty of that opening air crash to the claustrophobic house-bound climax in which Joe's increasingly estranged girlfriend Claire (Samantha Morton) feels the sharp end of Jed's affections, Michell and screenwriter Joe Penhall have remodelled McEwan's source material with alchemical cinematic skills. The result is one of the very best British movies of the year, a spine-tingling psychological thriller that combines nail- biting tension with the heartbreaking clout of a doomed romance.
Having shown an exemplary eye for the external architecture of internal conflict in The Mother, Michell once again proves himself the master of emotional space, leading the audience gently into the very heart of this unfolding tragedy. While we may be startled by the blind love that these characters endure (both the set-up and the climax produced audible gasps in the screening I attended), Michell's triumph is in keeping his characters grounded even as the genre-inflected narrative takes flight. To this end, he is aided by a trio of note-perfect performances from the film's key players, with Craig reaffirming his position as one of Britain's most charismatic leading men, while the occasionally over-earnest Morton wisely soft-pedals in a deceptively complex role. But it is Ifans (best known for shambling around in his underpants in Michell's blockbusting Notting Hill) who steals the movie, finding exactly the right blend of tragicomic gawkiness as Jed gradually turns from goofy God-botherer to border- line biblical psycho. Significantly, Jed's obsession with Joe (which McEwan's novel discusses in an appendicised medical account of "a homo-erotic obsession with religious overtones; a clinical variant of de Clerambault's syndrome") is never defined within the parameters of gay or straight sexuality - rather, Jed is a man struck by a revelation so soul-shaking that it simply overrides all boundaries of social interaction.
In the supporting roles, Bill Nighy and Susan Lynch make engaging sounding boards as Robin and Rachel, providing what Penhall describes as "normal, regular people" in whose company the maelstrom of Joe and Claire's bizarre experiences can be domestically discussed. That such a mechanical device should seem entirely organic to the plot speaks volumes about Penhall's talents as a writer. Yet, in the end, the real praise for this marvellous movie is due to Michell, who has risen quietly through the ranks (his eclectic filmography spans the television series The Buddha of Suburbia, the low-key Brit pic Titanic Town and the flashy Stateside thriller Changing Lanes) to become one of the most unassumingly adventurous directors currently working in the increasingly reinvigorated British film industry.