No film I've seen this year begins as enthrallingly as Enduring Love. The director, Roger Michell, is working from the blueprint of Ian McEwan's 1997 novel, whose first chapter is a miniature of accelerating suspense and panic.
The scene is an idyllic summer's day, with two lovers picnicking in a field. Joe (Daniel Craig) is about to open a bottle of champagne for his girlfriend Claire (Samantha Morton) when the sunlight behind them is eerily occluded by a hot-air balloon bobbing along the ground, out of control. Inside the basket is a terrified boy, outside his grandfather desperately trying to drag the craft to earth; instinctively, Joe and several passers-by dash towards the stricken balloon to lend a hand. "We were running towards a catastrophe," writes McEwan, "which itself was a kind of furnace in whose heat identities and fates would buckle into new shapes."
Re-reading the chapter reminds you how much help the film-maker has already been given by McEwan's precise visualisation of the scene, including a steepling crane shot that winds us with the horror of a man falling to his doom. Michell nails the solid physicality of it very convincingly, but then is obliged to negotiate the trickier terrain of the psychological derangement that the accident has broached. Joe, feeling guilty about letting go of the rope to save his own life, has almost forgotten the man, Jed (Rhys Ifans), who was involved with him in the rescue attempt, but Jed hasn't forgotten Joe; indeed, he believes that some "connection" has been made between them, and starts hanging around outside Joe's flat and dogging him.
Michell and his screenwriter Joe Penhall have quite a thematic load to unpack here, and to do so while cranking up the sense of dread - the signature McEwan mood - requires an adroit handling of contrasts, that mingling of the ordinary and the ominous that Hitchcock mastered so well.
At first they hit the mood spot on. Joe, a college lecturer and proud rationalist, initially dismisses Jed as "harmless", a God-botherer who has trouble coping with what happened in that field, though it's Joe himself who checks the rope burns on his palms and obsesses over how the tragedy might have been averted. Only gradually does Jed's presence impinge - there's a brief quiver of trouble ahead when the camera peers through a crowd at Joe eating in a restaurant, and it suddenly dawns that its point of view is actually Jed's, watching him. Rattled, Joe turns on his stalker. "You're mad." "They said that about Jesus," Jed replies. "They also said it about a lot of mad people," Joe counters.
Where the film begins to founder is in its decision to close off the avenue of misunderstanding between Joe and Claire, who in the novel doesn't believe that Joe is being persecuted. This glitch in communication tossed overboard, she becomes merely the unfortunate witness to Joe's steepening decline from distracted to maniacal, shaken awake in the middle of the night to listen to Joe's gabbled theory about stalkers and curtain-twitching - a theory that will fly right over the head of anyone who hasn't read the book. The bleary look on Morton's face doesn't say "I'm worried about you", but "Please let me get to sleep, you hysterical bore", and you can't help sympathising. After all, it doesn't take a rationalist to know that Joe could best deal with Jed by contacting the police.
Instead, the film grinds through some humourless set-pieces that illustrate the story's theme - the thin partition dividing love from madness - yet draw one dramatic blank after another. The cat-and-mouse edginess feels morose and inert.
As has been the case with previous McEwan adaptations, the prospect of caring about any particular character is remote: I've almost entirely forgotten Campbell Scott in The Innocent, and the only frisson of pleasure I recall during The Comfort of Strangers was the moment Christopher Walken winked after punching Rupert Everett in the stomach.
Craig has the lean, muscled look of a model (or an actor), but doesn't seem a man plagued by ideas, and Joe's dark night of the soul looks more like a weakness for public tantrums. Ifans, who could be auditioning for the role of Wurzel Gummidge's weird cousin, has a gentleness that's initially endearing, but thereafter becomes as much of a pest to us as he is to Joe. Hopes are raised by the sight of Bill Nighy playing one of Joe's "normal" friends, only to be dashed as the film appears to lose track of him.
What's odd about Enduring Love is a nagging sense that it's actually quite respectful of the book. True, Joe's profession has been switched from science journalist to lecturer, and Claire, a literary academic in the novel, is awarded the more visually appealing job of sculptress. Yet in the plotting of a relationship that gradually splinters under stress, the film feels true to McEwan's ideas about the psychopathology of desire and the ambiguity of "enduring", which can mean both "everlasting" and "suffering". The difference, however, is palpable: this film is very unlikely to spook you.
Michell has to his credit the best Jane Austen adaptation of the last 10 years in Persuasion, and plainly doesn't feel cowed by the difficulty of translation from page to screen. Fearlessness isn't enough, unfortunately. No film this year has begun more enthrallingly - and few have ended so disappointingly.