Artistic giants have always held a fascination for literate filmmakers, but writers and painters can be tough nuts to crack, not to mention hard sells to a wide audience. John Maybury has a bit of experience in this area, having written and directed the well-received Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon. Now Maybury tackles the great Dylan Thomas in The Edge of Love, a speculative investigation into a cloudy period of the poet and dramatist's personal life.
Adapted by Sharman MacDonald from David N. Thomas' A Farm, Two Mansions and a Bungalow and Esther Killick's "Personal Sketch of Vava and Personal Sketch of Papa," The Edge of Love concerns a period--beginning in 1940 London during The Blitz and ending in 1945 New Quay (West Wales)--during which Thomas (Matthew Rhys) and his wife Caitlin MacNamara (Sienna Miller) relied on the kindness of Thomas' childhood friend Vera Phillips (Kiera Knightley). The film opens with the chance reunion of Dylan and Vera--in a bar, of course--Thomas shamelessly flirting over the woman who may have been his first love ("Nothing should ever come between us," he maintains). Independent-minded but romantically vulnerable, Vera's a torch singer in the impromptu nightclubs of the London Underground, serving as distraction from the deadly bombing raids that buffet the city. Her distraction works a little too well on Army Captain William Killick (Cillian Murphy), who begins following her like a lost dog.
The linear-minded soldier stands in contrast to Thomas, whose asthma rules out military action; Thomas earns his meager keep writing narration for war films and poetry for BBC Radio. Chafing against the demands of his keepers, Thomas increasingly finds he cannot contain his genius just to collect a paycheck. For her part, Caitlin frets that her husband likewise cannot contain the contents of his trousers, so she makes a show of stomping on any sexual tension between Dylan and Vera, befriending Vera in the process. Though Vera's heart may well belong to Dylan, she gradually succumbs to Killick's pure-hearted advances ("Live while you can, all you can," he argues). So it is that Thomas finds himself serving as Killick's best man as he marries Vera. When Killick must march off again to war, Dylan, Caitlin and Vera repair to New Quay to await William's return and raise growing numbers of children.
More than anything, The Edge of Love is about what happens on Killick's return. The soldier has undiagnosed PTSD that serves as the choleric humor triggering terrible outbursts. He's paranoid (perhaps justly so) about Thomas' behavior around Vera, outraged over Vera's financial generosity to Dylan and Caitlin, and sensitive about his service to his country, and woe betide anyone who underappreciates it. It's a recipe for disaster, and Maybury effectively teases out an intriguing "what if this is how it went down" backstory for what's been till now mostly a passing detail in Thomas biographies. Along the way, Maybury examines Thomas' personal recklessness, and Caitlin's troubled dedication to keeping them afloat and together, but The Edge of Love is by no stretch a biopic. Rather, it's a meditation on the fateful confluence of conflicting desires and world events that will not be denied.
The accuracy of the film's intimations about the relationship between Dylan and Vera is dubious, as is the modern spin on the personalities in Thomas' personal orbit. Winning performances help to give body to the story. Rhys does well in bottling Thomas' restlessness of intellect and libido, without turning him into a slobbering drunk (for contrast, see Angus Macfadyen's absurd take on Orson Welles in The Cradle Will Rock). Knightley does some of her most appealing work to date--nicely complemented by Miller--and Murphy makes Killick agonizingly sympathetic. From the start, Maybury gives his visual transitions a suitably dreamy quality that wisely acknowledges the subjective take on the private lives of historic individuals. Playing a similar role is the musical score, including two original songs with lyrics by Maybury and music by the great Angelo Badalamenti.
In its Blu-ray edition, The Edge of Love gets a beaut of a high-def transfer. The source material is largely HD and partly 35mm film, but there's a surprising unity of effect through the use of rich and sometimes more-vivid-than-life color. The image is unfailingly sharp, with excellent contrast and strong dimensionality. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix provides a fine complement, with precision ambience and full-bodied presentation of the important musical score.
A nice sampling of bonus features provides context for the film, beginning with a commentary by director John Maybury and actor Matthew Rhys. It's a mildly shocking commentary--certainly irreverent--as Maybury and Rhys playfully acknowledge the film's quiet reception and generally cut up about themselves and their colleagues; the actors are all held up to good-natured mockery. Ironically, this is a film that could have benefited from a more serious discussion, but a good time will be had by all who give this track a spin.
"Looking Over The Edge of Love" (9:40, SD) is a brief look behind the scenes, with Maybury, Sienna Miller & Kiera Knightley, and Rhys. Press-shy Cillian Murphy doesn't participate, unfortunately.
Murphy does turn up in the entertaining "Gag Reel" (4:10, SD) and, of course, in the film's "Trailer" (1:35, SD).
This off-the-beaten-path title is well-worth a look for fans of Dylan Thomas and the actors involved.
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