Is it a very peculiar thing to have a favourite movie about stalking? People tend to think little of having a particular love for slashers and supernatural horror or thrillers that are predicated on deadly conspiracies or disgruntled rampaging psychopaths. Stalker-oriented cinema, on the other hand, possesses something that triggers discomfort and dumping of cortisol in a manner that simply cannot be achieved by these other variations on vicariously thrilling nastiness.
It’s pretty understandable, really. Works such as Cape Fear, Sleeping With The Enemy, Fatal Attraction or The Fan (Crazy De Niro or crazy Biehn, take your pick) don’t offer us ludicrously unrealistic violence-addicts such as Jason Voorhees nor spooky poltergeists terrorising the hapless occupants of some isolated mansion. The antagonists in these pictures are very much rooted in the fabric of verisimilar consensus reality, it is something that, with complete plausibility, could happen to you or me at any given time, and that is a monumentally disturbing notion, to say the least. Being constantly shadowed by an unbalanced and potentially dangerous individual(s), authorities unable to help you unless the pest is actually caught in blazing offence, renders a sensation of powerlessness with few equals. It’s a horrifying and depressing thing to endure. By God, it sure makes for good movies though.
Enduring Love, a 2004 adaptation of the acclaimed 1997 eponymous novel by Ian McEwan, is a singularly troubling riff on this particular phenomenon, one that largely dispenses with formulaic approaches and is bolstered by wonderfully grounded and believable performances, enrapturing imagery and a mature approach to its themes.
Joe (Daniel Craig) is a content and well-liked university lecturer madly in love with girlfriend Claire (Samantha Morton). Aching to pop the question, Joe has organised a picnic on a gorgeous day in the English countryside replete with champagne and other goodies, confidently optimistic that she could only say yes to such a poignantly romantic endeavour. Just as they’re tucking in, an extraordinary sight befalls them. High above the ground, a hot air balloon sweeps over the fields, a terrified young boy in the basket watching an older man helplessly dangling to the moorings outside of it. Without thinking, Joe and three strangers frantically rush toward the balloon in an attempt to ground it as it approaches the earth below.
Succeeding in rescuing the boy and the older fellow who turns out to be his grandfather, one of the heroic trio is not so lucky as he is carried off into the sky, promptly falling to a grisly death further along the green and sunny expanse. Eventually coming across the man’s corpse, Joe is accompanied by the third rescuer, a scruffy and liltingly Welsh loner named Jed (Rhys Ifans). Jed asks if Joe will join him in prayer before the dead man, the latter silently and reluctantly acquiescing in a state of shock.
In the days that follow, Joe’s trauma at what he has witnessed becomes more severe. His personal and professional lives begin to suffer as he ceaselessly torments himself with a plethora of ‘what if?’ hypotheses, feeling that he didn’t do enough to prevent the stranger from dying. Claire starts to get frustrated with his lack of communication and increasingly erratic temperament, Joe drifting off into his thoughts and blowing up at their friends and family. While working from home one day, Joe receives a phone call from Jed who is standing across the street from his house and desperate to talk to him. Unsettled, Joe nevertheless attempts to be amenable and humours Jed, a decision that will foment an increasing downward trajectory in the beleaguered professor’s already delicate psyche.
Jed relates his conviction that the events of that fateful day were divinely inspired, orchestrated by a higher power for the purpose of Jed & Joe meeting one another and forming a connection. He claims to be in love with Joe, interpreting the latter’s fear and bewilderment as natural resistance that can be remedied. Implacable in his belief that Joe reciprocates his feelings and is merely being contrarian due to psychological woe, Jed begins to show up in Joe’s life virtually every day, at work, at lunch, outside his home. With Claire and other people in his life loath to believe that Jed means him any harm, Joe begins to feel comprehensively gaslighted as the only support for his mental pain appears to be coming from an unpredictable and thoroughly deluded stranger who won’t take no for an answer. Faced with estrangement from those he cares for the most and decreasing clarity in his efforts to fend off Jed, Joe falls into restive psychological oblivion as he strives to claw his life back.
Eschewing hackneyed twists and set pieces, Enduring Love stands as a worthy entry in the stalker sub-genre because of its illustration of gaslighting, both intentional and not so. Joe values Claire and his capacity to mould malleable minds at work above all else, and the fact that his all-too-real exclamations of being victimised are dismissed as the ravings of a broken man is what truly compounds the disturbance here. Craig is nothing but naturalistic in his depiction of this brooding and highly-strung everyman, and one can only feel desperately sorry for the poor sod as Morton’s Claire displays insensitivity. Certainly, she just wants her man back, but few people can snap back into normalcy after the sight of a brutally mangled dead body bookends what should have been a wonderful day out.
Ifans is also to be commended for his fabulous portrayal of Jed. Lightyears away from a two-dimensional villain, this stalker is a discernibly unwell and lonely soul whose initially personable and tender demeanour appears utterly genuine in contrast with the knowing machinations of some Machiavellian psychopath. Jed conveys an intriguingly distorted empathy for Joe by claiming that he understands what Joe is going through, but not in terms of the emotional trauma from the accident, rather Joe’s ‘lack of bravery’ in admitting that he loves Jed and wants to be with him. In McEwan’s source novel, it is established that Jed is a sufferer of erotomania (otherwise known as de Clérambault’s syndrome) a genuine delusional disorder where the subject believes that somebody is in love with them apropos of nothing. This is translated effectively into the film, Jed being distinct from typical cinematic archetypes of evil but sadly still dangerous, as is only correct in terms of the illness’ symptoms. His behaviour will inevitably induce a strong uneasiness, but the lack of malice only makes the chaos he causes in Joe’s life all the more plaintive.
Roger Michell’s direction ensures an authentic and character-driven experience marked by substantive conversational nuance, the lush and evocative cinematography of the ever-reliable Haris Zambarloukos animating the peaceable fantasies of middle-class English existence with its beautiful utility of London and Oxfordshire hotspots. It also illuminates the film’s subtle commentaries on the stereotypically narcissistic manner that academics like Joe intellectualise everything and self-flagellate, raising questions about masculine responsibility and the very nature of love itself. All of this aided by Jeremy Sams’ alternately sombre and creepy soundscape, Enduring Love is a fascinating, scary and thoughtful dissection of obsession, existential crisis and the meaning behind the various ways that human beings are proximate with each other. This one is far from an endurance, I can assure you.