Colin Firth, Hugh Grant and Kenneth Branagh are among the many talented British actors who emerged in the mid-1980s. More recently, Clive Owen, Gerard Butler and Daniel Craig have joined their ranks. Each one happens to qualify as a thinking woman's hunk, thanks to their craggy good looks combined with gravitas. And then there's that oh-so-seductive accent.
Perhaps best known for his portrayal of an intense poet and philanderer in last year's Sylvia, Craig is back on the big screen as the intense college professor at the center of Enduring Love. The current film, now at the Roxy in Burlington, is about a man who begins doubting his previous assumptions and emotional ties after an unforeseen incident. Although this cerebral exploration is improbably crossed with slasher-movie elements, the whole remains more engrossing than the sum of its parts.
Adapted from Ian McEwan's 1998 novel and directed by Roger Michell, the picture begins with an idyllic setting: Joe (Craig) and Claire (Samantha Morton) are picnicking on a meadow near Oxford. He's about to pop the cork on a bottle of champagne, and pop the question. Random fate intervenes as a hot-air balloon drifts out of control above them with a young boy trapped in its basket.
Several people, including Joe, grab ropes hanging from the wayward device, but eventually let go to avoid being swept away. One man, who holds on longer than the rest, becomes a grim casualty. This tragedy has consequences beyond the obvious circumstances of his death.
Wracked by survivor's guilt, Joe starts to distance himself from Claire. He's obsessed with balloon-like shapes and can't seem to explain to her or to their friends exactly what's going on. His existential dread is carrying him away as surely as the balloon once might have. If love is elusive, what can we count on to tether us to Earth?
But Joe's lonely alienation turns into something even more complex when another witness to the accident shows up: Jed, an unkempt stranger with a mystical rant, is played by Rhys Ifans -- Hugh Grant's sweetly bonkers roommate in Notting Hill, also directed by Michell. It's as if that 1999 character has been reincarnated as a mad prophet.
At first, Joe is relieved to talk about the traumatic experience they shared, but his comfort zone quickly evaporates. Jed suggests that their brief encounter, particularly the moment when the two of them came upon the victim's crushed body, has spiritual significance.
Although Jed's not necessarily gay, he feels that God has bound him to Joe. The rather creepy, Bible-quoting stalker insists, "Everything happens for a reason." The same magical thinking that drives religious faith or New Age beliefs can be dangerous in the hands of a deranged soul. Yet Joe is initially mesmerized by those delusions because his uncertainty makes him vulnerable.
As the story devolves, Jed appears and disappears like a phantom. Claire, who has never seen the guy, questions whether he really exists. Joe questions his own sanity. Despite a denouement that veers into conventionality, Enduring Love leaves an enduring impression. From time to time, we all ponder the damn meaning of life. And some of us really enjoy any film in which Daniel Craig does the pondering.
Life's meaning takes on a different context in Persons of Interest, screening Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in Montpelier's City Hall Auditorium to benefit Vermont Refugee Assistance. Admission is $10. Co-directed by Alison Maclean and Tobias Perse, the documentary examines the Justice Department's detention of an estimated 5000 U.S.-based immigrants after 9/11. Many of the country's basic civil liberties were submerged as John Ashcroft, in the name of anti-terrorism, cast an alarmingly wide net that lots of little fish could not escape.
These people, primarily Muslims from South Asia or the Middle East, were often held in solitary confinement, denied access to legal services and deported. On camera, several of them describe what they went through; their relatives talk about the devastating impact on families that were suddenly torn apart.
The film employs an austere, empty room to symbolize the interrogation process. In this bleak environment, ordinary folks from Pakistan, Algeria, Somalia and Palestine discuss their extraordinary suffering. Contrast that with newsclips of the Attorney General trumpeting his campaign to expel the foreign-born and it's clear why The Hollywood Reporter calls the doc "a chilling look at national policy gone awry."