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Saturday, 28 June 2008

Guest Review: Oey on The Edge of Love

Jennifer Oey reviews
The Edge of Love

Directed by John Maybury and written by Sharman Macdonald, the film was released in the UK on June 20th following a lengthy mess and confusion of misdirected hype that has led reviewers and the public to expect a biopic of Dylan Thomas replete with a good old lesbian romp. This is a crying shame because it does a disservice to all involved in this bold interpretation of a complex relationship.

The film stars Keira Knightly as Dylan Thomas’s first love, Vera Phillips, and Sienna Miller as his wife, Caitlin Thomas, and focuses closely on the relationship these two women developed initiated by their shared love of the Welsh poet played by Cardiff born Matthew Rhys. The two men central to the story, Dylan and William Killick (Cillian Murphy), take a back seat in this case, as many wives and girlfriends have done over the course of film history.

Unfortunately it didn’t take the media long to invent a host of rumours (read: lies) about Knightly and Miller that effectively belittled their roles in the film. Mick Jagger’s threats to sue the BBC further confused matters: Jagger owns the rights to a large chunk of Thomas’s works, and took issue with Maybury’s inclusion of a reference to Map of Love (the title was shown in background of a scene) that resulted in post-production ‘removal’ to stop legal action from proceeding. Jagged Films is rumoured to be producing a Dylan Thomas biopic in the near future entitled, Map of Love. All of this attention focussed on Thomas and his poetry quite reasonably led folks to believe that his character would be more thoroughly examined than it is in this case.

Eyewear raises a potent concern in a previous post, The Edge of the Map of Love, about the apparent incongruity of mass culture and poetry. Few films dare to put a poet at their centre and those that do (Sylvia, Molière etc…) do not expect a large payoff at the box office and aren’t usually disappointed in this respect. Those who are interested in a filmic exploration of Thomas’s life and career will have to keep their fingers crossed that Jagged Films follow through with Map of Love as it’s hard to imagine how anyone else could make an endearing film about the poet without access to his major works.

Edge’s story is actually about Caitlin – Dylan’s troubled alcoholic philandering wife – and Vera – possibly Dylan’s first love and subsequent lover/mistress. The focus of the film is the convoluted relationship between these two complex women: a work of fiction based on true events. Both Macdonald and Maybury have taken poetic license and neither has denied that this is the case; this is an exploration of the relationship between two strong and self-sufficient women who find friendship and comfort in their closest rival. Miller and Knightly have a calculated chemistry on screen and it is intriguing to watch these two women care for each other, watch each other, and nearly destroy each other. Dylan Thomas is obviously an integral character in the story and, if not for him, the story of these two women and the speculation about their relationship would not ever have been of interest to a wide audience (and it’s unlikely that it has more than a moderate audience now) and this cannot and should not be ignored.

People will likely be of two minds about Dylan: some will find him despicable and selfish, and others, like Vera seems to, will find him to be charming but destructively child-like. Rhys’ performance perfectly compliments Miller and Knightly. As the man who selfishly wants them both always within reach, he is at once charming and full of himself and his poetry; and yet despicable and cowardly. And Cillian Murphy’s William Killick is his perfect foil: fit and able to serve in the war, single-mindedly devoted to one woman, and justifiably driven to drink by the horrors he eventually witnesses. Maybury’s intention to shoot the film like a documentary has resulted in a slight lack of focus in the building tension and ultimate climax of the film, but is nonetheless an compelling and well-executed portrait of Caitlin, Vera, Dylan, and William – crucially, in this order.

The Edge of Love beautifully and richly evokes the era of the Second World War despite, as Maybury puts it, leaving some work for the audience to do. Unlike many Hollywood period pieces, and indeed the recent Atonement, this film (bravely) does not have sweeping scenes filled with period-correct cars and paraphernalia. Instead, Maybury lets the period seep through the perfect red lips, floral dresses, pert hairstyles, and daring performances. It is highly effective and lets the focus be on the characters rather than the sets. This is not to say that there is any lack of mis-en-scene: the ballroom the bomb strikes is suitably opulent; the bars and underground cabaret are seedy; and the Welsh house on the cliff is scratchy, cold, and fraught with tension.

A biopic focussed on Thomas and his poetry is certainly something to look forward to and many of us will pin our hopes on Jagged Films in this regard. The Edge of Love, when seen for what it is meant to be – and not plagued with out-dated notions that dictate a protagonist to be, by default, male – is frankly an Oscar-worthy achievement.

Jennifer Oey is a Canadian writer and filmmaker currently based in Britain.
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