I was keen to see this when it was in theaters, given as most reviews mentioned its homo content, but never got around to it. Plus an artsy stalker movie is always welcome, and this one has Daniel Craig, who, as is well known, is destined to be my next boyfriend.
This is adapted from a novel by Ian McEwan, and if you’ve seen another film based on his work or read a novel, you know that everything is going to be highly intense, highly philosophical, and somewhat disturbing. In fact, the screen that tells you why this film is rated is says it’s in part because it contains “a disturbing image.” That’s right, it contains ONE disturbing image, leading you to watch while asking yourself “Is THAT the disturbing image? Or is it that one?”
We begin in this supernaturally beautiful and serene scene in which Daniel Craig as Joey and his girlfriend, Samantha Morton as Claire, are sitting. Suddenly a RED hot-air balloon drops in front of them, with a man holding on, calling for help. There is a petrified young boy inside the basket. Joey and a few other guys, including some guy that pulls up in a car, runs to help hold the balloon and pull it down. In here there are a number of striking images, what with the bright red balloon, green fields and blue sky. We also notice a large amount of camera angles and distracting skip-frame footage, which works fairly well the first time, but seemed a bit overactive upon watching this scene again. Joey and five others grab the balloon and pull it down, when a sudden wind [we do have a wind POV shot] comes and lifts all of them into the air. It is a successfully strange, off-kilter scene. They suddenly find themselves high in the air, and at a certain point all of them drop off and land—except for one man, holding onto a rope. He is drawn way, way up into the air as the others stand on in helpless amazement. At last he lets go and falls. We see him plunge fairly far down toward the ground, and I thought “A-ha! THAT’S the disturbing image, until a few seconds later, when we see his body after it hit the ground. THAT is definitely the disturbing image.
At the scene of the fallen body is Rhys Ifans as Jed. This is the disheveled blond guy from Notting Hill, also directed by Roger Michell. He is wigged [as in out, not that he’s wearing a wig] and asks Joey to pray with him. Joey refuses, but Jed begs, and so he gives in and humor him. This is the beginning of a beautiful stalking.
We are introduced to some of the couple’s friends, including Bill Nighy, recently of Notes on a Scandal, at a dinner where Joey is reflecting on his experience. He blames himself, feeling that they could have saved the guy if they all hadn’t let go. We also see Joey in his job as a philosopher at Oxford, where he lectures on whether love is real or is just an illusion.
Joey is at home obsessing over the physics of balloons when he gets a phone call from Jed, who REALLY wants to see him. And he’s conveniently located in the park right across the street. Joey reluctantly goes out to talk to him, and finds that Jed doesn’t have that much to say; he thinks Joey has something to say to HIM. When Joey says that he doesn’t, Jed asks him why he’s denying it.
They have a dinner party in which we find that Claire’s brother has dumped his wife for the young au pair, then the next day Jed is lurking around Joey in a bookstore. They have a further confrontation that ends with Jed implying what Joey already feels: that it’s his fault for letting go and allowing the man to die. That night Joey goes to Claire’s studio [she’s a sculptor] and presses her about why she never scuplts him. She says she can’t because she’s too close to him—she can’t objectify him. He tells her that Jed visited him again that day, and she is a bit dismissive and uninterested. Joey, however, seems unable to express himself or indicate that he needs to talk, and now the primary frustration with this movie sets in: the characters just aren’t saying what you want them to say, to the point where one as a viewer feels strung along. And it only gets worse.
I think there’s another meeting, after which they take Jed to be “a fan” of Joey’s, and then Joey tries to talk to his wife about it again, and once again she treats it all like it’s a massive inconvenience to her. “I think you should talk to someone about all this,” she says, to which Joey rightly responds: “I’m talking to YOU,” but she continues to blow him off. Around this time it becomes difficult to believe that even the most narcissistic among us wouldn’t at least put their hand on their long-time partner’s arm and ask him to talk about what’s bothering them, or tell him that what he did was heroic, but he realized that if he held on longer he himself could die, and in that case letting go is perfectly valid. Not to mention that Joey isn’t exactly as articulate as you hope he would be [and after all he IS a philosophy professor at Oxford who discourses at length on love, so I doubt he is fully inarticulate]. And the only conclusion one can arrive at—after dismissing the possibility that these characters are just really simple people—is that the script is deliberately avoiding certain discussions because if they came out in the open they would short-circuit the predetermined arc of the story. This is just Pan’s Labyrinth-style dishonest storytelling, but at least here the whole setup is interesting enough that it’s bearable. Nevertheless, one does grow further alienated from the characters and the film.
SPOILERS > > >
Things escalate, both in terms of Jed’s invasiveness and Joey’s inner turmoil. Joey blasts contempt in every direction at a dinner party, and we learn that Jed has been pulling things out of Joey’s garbage. Joey goes to visit the widow of the man who died, who believes that he was with a mistress in the car. Then Jed shows up in Joey’s class. He says they can get rid of Claire and just be together, and when Joey rebuffs him he screams “I love you!” to the entire campus, making it seem to the public like the two have been having a clandestine homosexual affair.
Jed had said something about how Joey is signalling his love for Jed with the curtains, and then Joey does a little late-night Internet research and finds that there was thing queen who was sending secret messages to her lover by opening and closing the curtains in a certain way. Joey wakes up Claire to tell her, but by now she will barely respond to him. He then goes over to the window to uselessly demonstrate the technique—and we in the audience roll our eyes and shout: “Contrivance!” Because a) I think we can all pretty well imagine what the act of drawing curtains looks like and do not in fact need a demonstration, thank you very much, and b) it’s obvious that Jed is going to be outside and take this as a signal that Joey really loves him. Sure enough. And then now-totally-irredeemable Claire refuses to even get up to see that he is actually outside.
< < < SPOILERS END
I’m going to let the end unfold on its own for you, as there are some rather surprising elements that are better discovered for yourself. Overall, it was fairly interesting, but not nearly as interesting as it should have been. Mainly this can be boiled down to what I’ve been complaining about all along; the characters here don’t speak or act like regular human beings do, which only makes one all the more aware that one is watching a highly contrived construction meant more as an essay than a story one might become involved in. Especially noteworthy, almost to the point of misogyny, is the depiction of the wife as an absolutely uncaring vacuum of narcissism. Even the most self-centered people I know would ask someone—let along their long-time boyfriend—what he was going through and try to reassure him. And if Joey is a philosopher at Oxford, you would think he could find some way to articulate himself, or have a better idea how to handle, as they say, “difficult people.” This is the first time I’ve seen Craig be less than fantastic, and I suspect it’s because he’s trying to act his way over obvious gaping holes in the script. Not that it’s not carefully written: it is very carefully written to avoid certain natural topics and bend the story into the predetermined story elements. I haven’t read the novel, but have read some other things by MacEwan, so I know that a lot of the intense philosophizing of the story and the sense of characters as representations of viewpoints rather than as actual characters is probably from the novel—but then again, those things work better in a novel. Here, we’re really just watching pieces moved around a chessboard to reach an preestablished conclusion.
Nevertheless, it’s still worth watching. Once. Maybe. The first scene—and the situation it sets up—is quite electrifying. Perhaps the movie seems disappointing in retrospect because it can’t find a way [or steadfastly refuses] to follow through on some of the issues raised by that first scene. The homosexual element is obviously there, but one doesn’t come away with any definitive sense of a statement being made, or even a point of view expressed. For a while I thought the movie was going to be about Joey discovering that Jed, crazy as he may be, has a much deeper and more devoted love for him than his girlfriend. But no. Ultimately I think it’s just an exploration of the many different types and meanings of love. Whether this is more rewarding than the conclusions you and your college friends came to when stoned in your dorm room that one Friday night is for you to determine.
Yeah, kind of, but if I could go back in time, I would warn myself to prepare for disappointment.