‘Enduring Love’ serves up rounded characters

Stewart Oksenhorn

Like most everyone who has seen “Sideways,” the latest film from director Alexander Payne and writer Jim Taylor, Roger Michell marveled at the story of two middle-age guys who drink and talk their way through California’s wine-producing region. But Michell was probably more impressed than most, knowing as he does what a tricky feat it is to get moviegoers to warm to characters who are not completely likable.”At the beginning of the movie, the character steals $800 from his mother’s drawer. I remember thinking, good god, how are we ever going to root for this guy?” said Michell, referring to Miles Raymond, the character played by Paul Giamatti.”That’s like a perfect quiz for a writer: How do you make anyone care what happens to this guy? And it’s a great film because he really comes around and becomes a very complete character. The world of the film is complex enough that it’s true. It allows you to see the world in an honest way that you don’t always see in films.”The same could well be said for “Enduring Love,” Michell’s latest directorial effort. Adapted from Ian McEwan’s 1997 novel, the film focuses on the troubles that follow three characters after a tragic balloon accident.”Enduring Love” might have it even tougher than “Sideways.” “Sideways” follows a character who may start off acting bad, but as the story unfolds, the audience gets a more rounded look at him. Michell’s film starts with a couple very much in love: the highly respected philosophy professor and author Joe (Daniel Craig) and his artist girlfriend, Claire (Samantha Morton). But following the balloon incident, Joe is trailed by a fellow witness, Jed (Rhys Ifans), whose behavior becomes increasingly obsessive and threatening. The film tracks how Jed’s stalking causes Joe’s life, including his relationship with Claire, to unravel. So Michell’s task is to make people care about a basically good person who becomes less and less so.”He’s having a hard time,” said Michell, from his home in London, of Joe. “He’s forced to question the whole bit, what the world is about. He’s in trauma, in crisis. He’s not meant to be likable.”Joe’s a rationalist in an irrational world. And that drives him nuts.”While Michell understands the difficulty of attracting an audience to see a movie about people behaving less than admirably, he concludes that drawing nice, neat characters is not his primary concern. And “Enduring Love” is hardly a departure; Michell’s previous film, “The Mother,” centered on an older woman having an affair with her daughter’s boyfriend.”I don’t think it’s my job as a director to like them all,” he said. “It’s my job to give them a hearing, on a level playing field. To let them live in a naturally democratic world. Not to comment on these characters from the outside, but to let their personalities come out naturally. Because we all live in an imperfect world, where we do bad things to each other all the time, every day.”And it’s nice to see those kinds of films sometimes.”And for Michell, it’s nice to make those kinds of films – sometimes. Michell’s filmography is filled with more than literate, ambiguous dramas; his previous films include “Notting Hill,” the 1999 hit romantic comedy starring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant that grossed more than $100 million; and “Changing Lanes,” an intense drama starring Samuel L. Jackson and Ben Affleck as feuding urbanites.In “Enduring Love,” Michell got to direct a character study that doubles as a thriller. “It’s a meditation on love and whether love endures. And it’s a thriller, a page turner,” he said. “That’s a great recipe for a film. If you have a film of ideas, it’s good to have a thriller to bolt it onto. It rings my bells for various reasons.”Michell is always seeking out the stories and characters that ring his bells, and not necessarily the large paychecks that come with big-budget films. Directing modestly budgeted back-to-back films, he said, “is a departure from the large scale of ‘Notting Hill’ and ‘Changing Lanes.'”But it’s not necessarily perpetual. I quite like mixing it up. I think it’s good, if you do a big film, not to change your lifestyle so that you have to keep on doing big films. You should do the films you really want to do. Because they take so long, you can only do so many of them.””Enduring Love” shows today at 8 p.m. at Harris Hall, as part of Aspen Filmfest’s Academy Screenings program. Also showing today, at 5:30 p.m., is “Stage Beauty,” starring Billy Crudup as a cross-dressing stage actor in Restoration-era London.Academy Screenings continue with multiple daily features through Jan. 1. There are no screenings scheduled for Friday and Saturday, Dec. 24-25. For a complete schedule, go to Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is