A four-way emotional collision involving the poet Dylan Thomas, his wife Caitlin and another couple is scrutinized in Brit helmer John Maybury’s “The Edge of Love.” While the period drama has several redeeming features, tonally it’s all over the map, veering between artsy stylization and hum-drum, sometimes almost twee melodrama. Although vigorous marketing and the presence of stars Keira Knightley and Sienna Miller will pull in considerable punters, especially in Blighty, “Edge” is neither edgy enough to satisfy the arthouse crowd nor, given its downbeat arc, sufficiently lovey-dovey for the mainstream.
Story begins in 1940, in the first bloom of the Blitz. Working in London for the war effort, Dylan Thomas (Welsh thesp Matthew Rhys, best known for TV’s “Brothers and Sisters”) runs into his ex-g.f. Vera Philips (Knightley), who grew up with Thomas in Wales. She’s now earning a living singing to the huddled masses in underground shelters during bomb raids. (Given Knightley’s singing voice, which is as thin as her figure, and her strained Welsh accent, she’d be well advised not to give up the day job playing posh English totties.)
Vera has never really gotten over Dylan. All the same, she becomes firm friends with his passionate, impetuous wife Caitlin (Miller), an Irish lass who, like Thomas, enjoys a drink or six. Before long, the three are sharing an attic room together, with nothing but an impractical, if highly photogenic, diaphanous curtain between their beds for privacy.
English Capt. William Killick (Cillian Murphy) takes a fancy to Vera; she gives him the cold shoulder at first, but their survival together of a bomb attack precipitates their affair and eventual marriage. However, Vera and William’s romantic idyll is cut short when he’s called up to fight in Greece.
Action then jumps ahead a year or so to the Welsh seaside. Vera is living with Rowatt, her infant son by William, in one cottage while Dylan and Caitlin live a stone’s throw away with their slightly older boy, Llewellyn. No one is very happy: Vera pines for William, Dylan drinks and cheats on Caitlin, Caitlin drinks and cheats on Dylan, and the kids cry a lot. Overseas, judging by the desaturated color of the lensing, poor William seems to have wandered into a low-budget remake of “Saving Private Ryan.”
When William finally returns shellshocked from the front, revelations tumble out, resentments come to a boil and violence breaks out, with a clumsy last-act shift into courtroom drama and a curiously flat resolution.
Like many other literary biopics, the screenplay by Sharman Macdonald (Knightley’s mother, best known for her plays) struggles to cleave a clean narrative out of the mess of real lives and events. Consequently, minor characters drift in and out, their relationships to the leads never quite clarified, and there’s a growing sense that the film was cut down from a longer edit.
While the dialogue keeps emphasizing the convention-defying bond between Vera and Caitlin, their rapport seems more asserted than felt. Their friendship seems meant to form the real heart of the story, but its arteries keep getting clogged with subplots and digressions, never coming into focus despite a few well-written scenes.
Miller holds her end up beautifully, adding surprising depths to a tricky, mercurial character. (The revisionist script tries a bit too hard, though, to paint Caitlin as a long-suffering victim.) Unfortunately, Knightley, who has yet to prove her mettle as a leading thesp outside a film helmed by Joe Wright, convinces neither as a gauche girl from the valleys nor as a liberated sophisticate of the period. Still, she looks terrific, as does Miller, in wide-shouldered 1940s frocks and scarlet slashes of lipstick.
Rhys’ work is sturdy, getting Thomas’ delivery down pat without descending into mere impersonation. The always reliable Murphy adds heft as the troubled William, but still looks miscast in a part that calls for dash as well as dourness.
Ultimately, none of the characters are terribly sympathetic, which may prove a problem for the women’s-mag market the pic is targeting domestically. Indeed, given its portrait of an artist as a selfish young jerk, “The Edge of Love” reps a companion piece of sorts to Maybury’s “Love Is the Devil,” which examined the unhappy relationship between painter Francis Bacon and his working-class lover George Dyer. Both pics admirably refuse to canonize their most famous characters. Considering how unflattering the depiction of Thomas is here, it’s to his heirs’ credit that they’ve permitted the use of his poetry in the film.
Pic’s first half is slow going, with one too many musical interludes (admittedly luminously shot by Jonathan Freeman to accentuate the hot reds of the Technicolor palette). A few standout sequences get across the weird, heightened atmosphere of the Blitz, using archival footage and visual effects to add background. The story picks up with the shift to Wales but grows drabber visually, perhaps justifiably so, given the more domestic milieu.
Non-source music by Angelo Badalamenti contributes a spooky, contempo texture that abrades the rigorous period detail in an interesting way. Other tech credits are pro.