What effect did the domestic upheavals and romantic imbroglios of Dylan Thomas's life have on his writing? How did he come to be toing and froing in the early 1940s between the singer Vera Phillips and his wife, Caitlin? What did those apparently very different women see in him? And how did the three of them refrain from killing one another? All these questions and more are left roundly unanswered by The Edge of Love, which sets out to restore the balance in the relationship between Dylan, Vera and Caitlin - that is, to give the women their due, and to show the poet for the cad that he could be.
This idea would doubtless have worked a treat if the picture didn't suffer from a weird conflict of emphasis: it's all very well bucking the biopic trend and shunting Dylan Thomas into the sidings, but there has to be something to take his place. Instead, the audience has its work cut out trying to discern exactly whom or what the film might be about, other than Keira Knightley's lips, which labour under several coats of fire-engine red. (Whenever the camera zooms in on her laughing gear, it's like having a stoplight shone in your face.)
Knightley plays Vera, who is reunited with Dylan (Matthew Rhys), her childhood sweetheart, in 1941 London, where she is performing for crowds in Tube stations and he is turning out propaganda scripts. She is frightfully pleased to see him, and who wouldn't be? After all, he's played from beneath a nest of jaunty curls by Rhys, a once-promising actor who, tragically, has been imprisoned for some years in the US television series Brothers and Sisters, where the entire cast stands idly by, week after week, as Sally Field overacts. Performing alongside Keira Knightley's lips must be a breeze by comparison.
Vera is less happy to discover that Dylan has acquired a wife since they last met. Caitlin (Sienna Miller) is a bawdy, voracious sort who wastes no time in griping to her about the pitfalls of living with a poet. "He thinks I'm put on this earth to nurture his talent," she complains. "Who's going to nurture my bloody talent?" (That grinding noise you can hear is the screenwriter Sharman Macdonald - aka, Keira's mum - setting out her stall.)
The women start off eyeing each other like alley cats spoiling for a scrap, but they're soon having lots of bonding montages: squeezing into the same tub, frolicking in the sea, suffering unexplainable attacks of the giggles - all the things that a film-maker throws in when a friendship hasn't been plausibly explained. Loitering on the sidelines is William Killick (Cillian Murphy), an army captain with designs on Vera. "I'd hate to get on the wrong side of you," Dylan tells William, but we don't need that pointer to know something nasty is coming; there's no way this straight-shooter, lean and deadly as a bayonet, will put up for long with the hedonistic frivolity of Dylan and his gang.
The director, John Maybury, has form in the area of amour fou, from his strikingly simple video for Sinéad O'Connor's "Nothing Compares 2 U" to his 1998 film debut, Love is the Devil, which pecked carnivorously at Francis Bacon's love life. As you'd expect from a man who served his apprenticeship with Derek Jarman, Maybury is partial to some visual loopiness - he makes Caitlin's eyes glow blue in the dark, and imposes so many reflections on Vera and William in the bedroom that it looks like they're making love in a funhouse. And if you want the Blitz on a budget, Maybury is your man - he stages the bombing of the Café de Paris using nothing but loud bangs, broken glass and Suggs from Madness dead on the floor.
But no amount of stylistic gusto can disguise the film's flimsiness, or its peculiar and off-putting inner tensions. For all the sniping against Dylan Thomas, it was presumably his name that got the film made in the first place. And it is Thomas's lines from "In My Craft or Sullen Art" that chime out in the final moments, essentially giving him the last word over the women the film purports to defend.
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