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'Enduring Love' fails to sustain early promise

One needn't have read Ian McEwan's 1997 novel ''Enduring Love" to be so many steps ahead of the movie that's been made of it. The sole requirement is a limited exposure to thrillers about unhinged, unbathed obsessives. This one stars Rhys Ifans, Hugh Grant's grimy flatmate in ''Notting Hill," as Jed, the sort of fellow who phones you up from the playground across the street from your apartment and asks if you can come out and play.

The object of his obsession is Joe (Daniel Craig), an even-keeled biology professor in London, and from Jed's first call, Joe is wary and doubtful, but obliging all the same. Jed insists they ought to discuss the tragic event they -- and we -- recently witnessed together.

On a clear afternoon of brilliant sun and heart-stopping cloudlessness, Joe and his sculptress girlfriend Claire (Samantha Morton) sit down in a wide-open English field in awe of the day. He's about to uncork a good bottle of wine when a runaway red, hot-air balloon comes speeding into view. Joe and three other bystanders race to the aid of a father trying to bring the thing to a stop and rescue the son trapped in the basket. A gale comes along that sends the balloon aloft along with the bodies trying to ground it. One by one, starting with Joe, the men release their grips, but one lets go too late and falls to his death.

Directed by Roger Michell, this chilling opening sequence is exquisite filmmaking that quietly plays as the sort of catastrophe that might make two strangers feel a kindred connection. That seems especially true after Joe and Jed together discover the body, a ghastly sight that makes Jed want to pray. He pleads for Joe, who offers a demurral, to kneel, too.

For a while, the movie, which Joe Penhall adapted, allows the tragedy to weigh on Joe. He wonders ''what if," and, in a scene of bold understatement, experimentally inflates a party balloon that he bats around his house. And Craig, who's serious here, very lean, and very physical, makes the most of a fundamentally inane character. Still, his commitment to the part is cheapened by the picture's intellectual pretensions. The pressure on Joe's psyche gives way to Jed the psycho, who exploits the incident to haunt Joe.

Penhall and Michell vaguely allow for the possibility that one man is the psychological product of the other's neurosis. That would be the only way for most of this to work. The movie, ultimately, is so ludicrous about its two central relationships that you're desperate for a moment in which Joe pops awake, sweaty and screaming. It never comes. So we're left to puzzle over how Jed can show up unnoticed to bug Joe in the darndest places, such as at a restaurant or at the bookstore or in class, where Jed mewls a twisted version of ''God Only Knows."

Once Joe bursts into Jed's apartment in a fit of angry exasperation and finds a shrine full of relevant news clippings and photos of him and of Claire, whose eyes have been snipped out, ''Enduring Love" finally admits that it's trash masquerading as an exploration of interpersonal faith and devotion. Michell also directed ''Notting Hill" and ''Changing Lanes," and ''Enduring Love" crashes between the first film's insipid soapiness and the second's muscularity. His film from last year, ''The Mother," which starred a less rigid Craig, was mercifully free of this new movie's intellectual airs and had a less desperate, more full-bodied luridness.

''Enduring Love" is technically outstanding and the performances are strong. In McEwan's book, Jed's intense passion for Joe was meant to galvanize his commitment to Claire. In the movie, it only heightens his narcissism. Morton doesn't have much to do, but Claire's eventual annoyance with her lover feels about right, even though a better movie would let her speak more.

Despite Ifans's relative restraint, Jed is your garden-variety nutcase and unstable homosexual, and the movie demonstrates a similar contempt for him and his possible mental illness that ''Fatal Attraction" had for Glenn Close, whose untamed hair and knifeplay appear to be inspirations.

The last act of ''Enduring Love" is an abridgement of that film's, too. This one does include a Shocking Moment, but the movie has been too high-minded for it to feel earned. Instead, it walks the line between romantic piety and utter tastelessness, opting to be a cheap potboiler only after it's run out of ways to seem profound.

Wesley Morris can reached at

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