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‘Enduring Love’ a crisp psychological thriller

Craig and Morton deal with the aftermath of a hot-air balloon crash. By Christy Lemire
/ Source: The Associated Press

The ads for “Enduring Love” proclaim that the film comes from the director of “Notting Hill.” And that’s true, it does — but don’t expect glamorous stars trading witty banter and falling in love.

Because “Enduring Love” bears a stronger resemblance to another film from director Roger Michell, “Changing Lanes,” in which Samuel L. Jackson and Ben Affleck stalked each other after a traffic accident.

Here, Daniel Craig becomes the object of Rhys Ifans’ obsession after the two get dragged into a different kind of accident: a hot-air balloon crash in an idyllic patch of English countryside.

The accident, which takes place in the film’s first moments, is vividly rendered and strikingly shot and edited, with the dark red of the balloon brilliantly juxtaposed against the bright blue sky and the deep green grass.

Craig’s Joe and Ifans’ Jed are among a handful of men who try to stop the out-of-control contraption after it lurches to the ground, then takes off again. They dangle from the basket until, one by one, each drops futilely back to the ground — except for the last man, who holds on too long and ultimately falls to his death.

From there, Michell and playwright Joe Penhall, who wrote the script, never let up. In adapting Ian McEwan’s novel “Enduring Love,” they’ve molded a riveting psychological thriller in which most of the thrills come from not understanding exactly what’s thrilling you.

When scruffy, scraggly haired Jed first calls Joe, a professor, at home to talk about the accident, it seems at first that he needs the catharsis after such a traumatic experience. He asks to meet in a park across the street from the loft Joe shares with his girlfriend, Claire (Samantha Morton), to whom Joe was going to propose marriage on that sunny day in the country.

Joe agrees because he’s been obsessing, too — noticing round, red objects around the apartment and making “Close Encounters”-style sketches of hot-air balloons. But Jed quickly starts making cryptic comments and biblical allusions and demanding that Joe open up to him. Soon he’s following Joe to the bookstore and to lunch and sitting in on his class, insisting that something special passed through them that day.

“You’ve got something to say to me,” Jed says calmly. “You know what I want.”

It’s not clear what he wants, though — whether it’s friendship or love, whether he’s lonely or just envious of Joe’s life — and that’s much of what makes “Enduring Love” so fascinating. Even when the film reaches its startling climax, Jed’s intentions still remain a bit of a mystery (and it would have been nice if he’d been fleshed out more).

But Ifans, the wacky flatmate in 1999’s “Notting Hill” and the honorable William Dobbin opposite Reese Witherspoon’s Becky Sharp in this year’s “Vanity Fair,” continues to diversify here. There’s something sad and sort of poignant about his performance: This isn’t an obviously menacing character, like Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction.” He manages to make you feel incredibly uncomfortable while simultaneously inspiring some sympathy.

And Craig, who was so good as Paul Newman’s scheming son in “Road to Perdition,” makes Joe’s fear and anger palpable as he starts stalking the stalker in hopes of understanding and ending the madness. As Jed insinuates himself in Joe’s life, he drives a wedge between Joe and Claire, which turns Joe into even more of a wreck. (Morton, meanwhile, adds a spark to what could have been a two-dimensional girlfriend role.)

So don’t let the title fool you — there’s nothing traditionally loving about “Enduring Love,” though it will probably endure in your brain afterward.