It’s not uncommon for prospective parents, before taking the plunge and starting a family, to ask themselves some dark, nagging questions: What if I’m a terrible parent? What if I don’t even like parenting? What if my child doesn’t like me? What if it’s a mistake? For the vast majority, such thoughts melt away once the child is born, and instinctive love takes over. But there are some for whom these doubts endure, and it’s in this thorny, extended post-partum state that British writer-director Dominic Savage’s intelligent, empathetic character study “The Escape” immerses itself.
Bolstered by Gemma Arterton’s unvarnished, affecting lead turn as a young stay-at-home mom in soulless suburban England who’s slowly consumed by depression she’s made to feel guilty for having, Savage’s film thoughtfully and credibly outlines the conflict between a superficially abundant lifestyle and overwhelming internal lack. It’s on less sure footing with the morally fraught wish-fulfilment of its second half, though Arterton’s quiet, consistent emotional conviction pulls matters through. Her presence, alongside that of a fine Dominic Cooper as her sometimes loving but mostly obtuse husband, will attract more specialist distributor attention than this kind of solemn cinematic chamber play might otherwise garner, though “The Escape” is likeliest to find sanctuary on VOD platforms.
As the film’s first half-hour tracks the uninspiring daily routine of Tara (Arterton), a mother of two holed away on a cookie-cutter housing estate in a Kent satellite town, more impatient viewers might find themselves waiting for something to happen — though the film’s very point is that nothing significant is coming down the pike, and Tara knows it all too well. She loves her elementary school-age son and daughter (played by real-life siblings Teddy and Florrie Pender) without taking much pleasure in their company; she at once feels neither challenged by, nor up to the task of, running a household of endless juice spills and a bottomless laundry basket.
Her businessman husband Mark isn’t so much deliberately unkind as chronically unperceptive, writing off her pretty immovable ennui as a mere symptom of womanly mood swings — and responding to her brief surges of inspiration, such as a sudden inclination to take art classes, with vague condescension. In perhaps the film’s most pointed allusion to her secondary status, Tara’s name is withheld from the audience for nearly an hour, replaced by variations on “mummy” and paternalistic terms of endearment.
More alarming still than Tara’s stifling predicament is the indifference with which even her closest friends and family regard it: The words “mental health” are never uttered in Savage’s screenplay, which might itself tacitly remind audiences of just how ill-recognized the issue continues to be in large strata of mainstream society. There’s no sympathy, either, from Tara’s unmarried mother (Frances Barber), whose comparisons between her daughter’s financially solvent position and her own experience of working-class single parenting border on the resentful: “You’ve got it made — two cars and a conservatory!” she advises. Savage weaves a subtle thread of class commentary into Tara’s plight, with her invisible torment is viewed by some as a form of self-made privilege.
The saving grace of Tara’s life in commuter-belt limbo is that she’s not far from a Eurostar station, where hourly trains promise to sweep her away to Paris — a recurring daydream she fosters like the eponymous housewife heroine of Marianne Faithfull’s “Ballad of Lucy Jordan.” (You can all but hear the song’s synths bubbling up from under Alexandra Harwood and Anthony John’s starkly melancholic, piano-based score.) Following one morning of especially fractious domestic discord, she impulsively buys a ticket, in the process setting her life on a different course — and the film on a tonal diagonal.
Drawn by an irrational soul connection to “The Lady and the Unicorn,” the celebrated series of Flanders tapestries on display in Paris’s Museum of the Middle Ages, she embarks on a kind of second-self romantic quest, abetted by worldlier French acquaintances. As she relaxes, so does the filmmaking — the score sweetens, while Laurie Rose’s hitherto jagged, utilitarian lensing takes on a rosier glow. The softening of the film’s outlook isn’t without some rueful payoff of truth — this remains a kitchen-sink drama, after all, not “French Kiss.” Still, the keenly observed environmental and behavioral detail of the first half is missed somewhat in this transition, ahead of a potentially debate-prompting resolution (already teased at the outset of the film) that takes a few emotional shortcuts.
Even through its wobbles, “The Escape” works as an unsparing showcase for Arterton’s growing range and maturity as an actress. Savage’s low-key directorial style trusts her to carry the bulk of the film’s weight, with the camera often settling on her face and waiting for it to get to work — which it does, as in one notable closeup of silent contortion and confusion as she listens to a series of urgent voicemails. “You looked too unhappy to pass by,” a kindly French stranger (played by Marthe Keller, in a wistful cameo) tells Tara at one point; the audience, to Arterton’s credit, is inclined to agree.