Thursday, March 19, 2009

Dylan Thomas: The Edge of Love

New York is the proud home of the White Horse Tavern, world famous as the site of Dylan Thomas’s last round of cheer. While the Welsh poet had quite the reputation for imbibing spirits, alcoholism is the least of his flaws in a new bio-picture. Opening tomorrow in New York, John Maybury’s Edge of Love (trailer here) is a highly unflattering portrait of a hopelessly self-absorbed individual, who also happened to be a great poet.

As Edge opens, World War II is raging, but not for Thomas. Sharman MacDonald’s screenplay clearly implies he is shirking his duty through a dubious medical deferment. He is also a neglectful father, unfaithful husband, and a selfish, petty man. From this starting point, he only becomes less sympathetic as the film progresses.

A chance encounter with his childhood sweetheart rekindles Thomas’s affections for the beautiful Vera Philips, played by Keira Knightley. Unfortunately, he is already married to Caitlin (portrayed by Sienna Miller), who provides their child some measure of parental supervision, when not pursuing her own affairs. The Thomases invite Philips into their lives, with both harboring some sort of attraction to her. However, it is Captain William Killick who wins her reluctant heart, only to leave shortly after their wedding for a Hellish tour of duty behind enemy lines in Greece.

Married just long enough to get pregnant, Philips (now Killick) moves back to Wales, living next door to the Thomases, supporting their wastrel lifestyle with Killick’s money, while mostly deflecting their advances—though the distributor would surely like to point out that Knightley and Miller have a scene bathing together. When the shell-shocked Captain comes home, his condition is aggravated by the vicious village gossip, which eventually pushes him past his breaking point.

As Killock, Cillian Murphy is quite nuanced, preventing the Captain from coming across as a stereotypical crazed veteran. Frankly, when he finally snaps, the audience is ready to see the egotistically Thomas and his snobbish radio colleagues get the beat-down they deserve. They sneer at concepts like patriotism and service from the relative safety of the countryside, while Killick witnessed the horrors of war first hand. It is when Edge dramatizes such differences of values that it is at its sharpest.

The ethereal Knightley also has some fine moments, particularly early in the film, revealing a hitherto unknown singing talent. Her performances of sweetly sentimental big band vocals are surprisingly enjoyable and the somewhat jazz-influenced soundtrack by Angelo Badalamenti (best known for his work on Twin Peaks) is often appealingly breezy. Unfortunately, Matthew Rhys is rather flat and charmless as the difficult Thomas, which leads to considerable credibility problems for the film.

Co-produced by BBC Films, Edge is sort of a cross between Masterpiece Theater and an HBO original drama, but it is probably too racy for PBS, while not showing enough skin for premium cable. Despite a problematic lead performance, Edge has some diverting moments, certainly including Knightley’s musical numbers. It opens tomorrow in New York at the Angelika.