I actually saw these two British films a couple of weeks ago, but have been too busy to write anything about them. Usually that means I just abandon any interest in reviewing a film, but these two have stuck in my head.
Enduring Love begins with the most unlikely of incidents. A man and a woman open a picnic basket in a field in Oxford on a sunny day. Suddenly, their pastoral splendour is interrupted by a hot-air balloon that lurches across the field. The man, Joe, joins four other men to try to bring it to safety. As they all hang on to the balloon, struggling to bring it back to ground, there’s a serene pause. They all recognize their situation–a classic prisoner’s dilemma. What follows sets up the slow-burn thriller that is the rest of the film.
Joe returns to his life as college professor and loving partner to Claire, a sculptor played by Samantha Morton. Joe is tormented, first by his own actions on the balloon, and then by Paul Welsh, a fellow rescuer who becomes obsessed with Joe.
Enduring Love is essentially a male, British Single White Female that begins oddly. However, the acting makes it superior that American film. I could watch Samantha Morton fold laundry. She is the finest actress of her generation. Her eyes are pools of infinite sadness, which is why she often gets cast in tragic roles. We’re accustomed to laughing at Rhys Ifans’s oddness–his bad teeth, ratty hair and peculiar accent have stood him in good comic stead. In Enduring Love, however, they make him desperate and creepy. We spend much of the film wondering what he’s capable of.
Enduring Love is an awful title for a film. At best it’s a bad pun. At worst, it turns potential viewers off. The name comes from the Ian McEwan novel from which it’s adapted. Presumably they retained the name to exploit his readership. That’s a typically British marketing move, but it doesn’t fly in North America.
Closer is a movie about how we find love, and how we lose it. It’s adapted by the playwright Patrick Marber from his award-winning play of the same name. As it happens, I did a lighting design for a small production of this play in Dublin (there are some bad photos here), so I’m extremely familiar with the play. With the exception of the ending, the screenplay is remarkably loyal to the stage version. Essentially, the film is comprised of twelve or thirteen scenes, where two of the four characters come together in love or conflict.
Dan (Jude Law) spots Claire (Natalie Portman) on the streets of London, moments before she is knocked over by a taxi. He takes her to the hospital, and a relationship blooms. A few months later, Dan is having his photo taken by Anna (Julia Roberts). They fall for each other. Meanwhile, Dan accidentally sets Anna up with Larry during some joyously-dirty cyber sex (Larry thinks Dan is a woman). The rest of the film plays out in these four character’s elliptical orbits.
Marber’s screenplay is one of the finest you’ll hear this year. The dialogue is incredibly sharp–the characters strip each other to the bone at every turn. One scene in particular, between Owen and Roberts, is exceptionally vicious.
Mike Nichols’s direction is very hands off. He lets the scenes run their course, shooting them conventionally and depending on the script’s strength to keep the film moving. The acting is strong as well. At first I bemoaned the casting of two American actresses in English roles, but Julia Roberts puts her icy strength to good will, and Natalie Portman’s youthful vigour is an effective contrast to the older performers. Portman ably plays a twenty-something version of Marty, the clever, love-struck girl in Beautiful Girls.
British filmmakers generally work best when making small films. Enduring Love and Closer are quality examples–they’re both a little short on plot points, but are exceptionally acted.