"Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art."
Romances and character studies always have a hard time at the movies. They have an especially hard time when they're as prosaic as this one and released in limited distribution. In the case of 2008's "The Edge of Love," it's a film hardly anyone saw in a theater, despite its starring big names like Keira Knightley, Sienna Miller, Cillian Murphy, and Matthew Rhys. The fact is, the movie doesn't hold up very well for its 111 minutes running time.
Screenwriter, playwright, and actress Sharman Macdonald ("The Winter Guest") and director John Maybury ("The Jacket," "Love Is the Devil") based the movie's story on a part of the tempestuous life of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (1914-1953), namely, the man's love life during the Second World War. Certainly, if one can believe the stories about the man--his hard drinking and his many affairs--there is more than enough material for a movie. It's just that little of it, including his writing, comes off very dramatically here, instead seeming more like turgid melodrama as the plot progresses.
Now, here's the thing: You'd think a movie in which one of the main characters was a famous poet would be about that famous poet. Nope. It's actually about two of the loves of his life and their relationship to one another. This will probably come as something of a surprise and a disappointment to fans of the poet. Indeed, one of the film's biggest weaknesses is that it doesn't really focus on any of the main characters very much, producing a narrative that is rather vague and fragmented.
The story begins in 1940 in a bomb shelter during the London blitz. As the bombing progresses overhead, Dylan Thomas (Matthew Rhys) is listening to a young singer, Vera Phillips (Keira Knightley), entertaining the crowd. She is an old flame of his, a childhood sweetheart from Wales, and they renew their friendship. Thomas's wife, Caitlin (Sienna Miller), an inspirational muse to the poet's imagination, is also on hand. Thomas has been unable to join the military and is earning a meager living working on government propaganda films and reading his poetry on the radio. Neither he nor his wife have a place to live, so they move into Vera's tiny apartment.
Then Vera meets William Killick (Cillian Murphy), a handsome young soldier, and begins seeing more of him. Before long, the army orders William to the front, he and Vera marry, and he leaves her pregnant. Both Vera and Caitlin find themselves abandoned in their own way, Vera's husband gone off fighting the War and Caitlin's husband boozing, womanizing, and writing his poetry. So, the two women begin to bond, a connection that appears heading toward the Sapphic before veering into simple respect and mutual understanding at first and envy and jealousy later.
Before long the three of them are living in neighboring cottages on the windswept coast of Wales, the women both have kids, Dylan is still carrying on as usual, Caitlin sees other men, and the townsfolk are starting to gossip. Vera and Dylan rekindle old desires, resentments ensue, bickering, and fighting. When Vera's husband returns from the War, he's a changed man, and the complications increase.
There is no doubt the filmmakers intended "The Edge of Love" as an exploration of the complexities of human relationships, particularly the relationship between the two women, as well as an exploration into how friendships start and end and the effects of war, drink, children, and financial need on people. However, that's not the way the movie turns out. Dylan Thomas, whose poetry has moved millions of readers, comes off simply as a dull, drunken, philandering wastrel, of whose poetry we hear but little; his wife Caitlin, who is supposed to be the free-spirited spark in Thomas's life, comes off just as dull as Thomas and a little pathetic, too; Vera, the poor girl from Wales who has gone to the big city to find herself, comes off not only as a pretty face but pretty empty-headed as well; and Killick, the soldier, comes off as an enigma, a self-confident charmer who turns creepy by the end.
In the movie's favor, the acting is excellent, Ms. Knightley in particular getting so wrapped up in her role that she makes us forget her previous parts in films like "Pirates of the Carrabean," "Atonement," "King Arthur," "Pride and Prejudice," and "Domino." She genuinely becomes Vera, leaving her movie-star persona behind. In addition, the film does a wonderful with its evocation of the era--the music, songs, settings, hairstyles, clothing, even the filmmaking techniques recreating the 1940s with consummate skill.
It's too bad there isn't more to "The Edge of Love" than good acting, attractive sets, and authentic costumes. It's the constant squabbling, pettiness, drinking, smoking, penury, and ultimate despair that get to a person. And, as I've said, the film doesn't really concentrate on any one of the issues or any one of its four principals long enough to help us care much about them. Instead, the movie provides only brief, superficial glimpses into the lives of its characters and their problems. The first half hour, when it introduces us to these folks, does show promise; but it comes to a grinding halt early on and soon makes us wonder by the time it's over whether it was worth our trouble watching it.
Trivia note: The fact that Keira Knightley co-stars in the film may have something to do with her being the daughter of the film's scriptwriter, Sharman Macdonald. Well, it couldn't have hurt.
Image Entertainment use a single-layer BD25 and an MPEG-4 video codec to transfer the film to Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The high-resolution reproduction does what it can with the movie's digital photography, which would appear to have been fairly soft and overly smooth to begin with, with only moderate black levels. For some viewers, the high point of the picture quality will be its absolute cleanness, it's lack of almost any trace of grain or noise. For other viewers, that ultra cleanness may be its downfall because there isn't a lot of texture or depth to the image.
Director Maybury shot much of the movie indoors, so there are quite a few dim, shadowy scenes involved. Additionally, he adjusted much of the indoor color to look drained, adding a slight purplish tint to everything as well, as though he were trying to emulate the predominately black-and-white photography of the day. One has to respect his decision, but it doesn't exactly cry out for a high-definition transfer. The hues show up best in the outdoor daylight shots, though, where everything looks brighter and more natural, and the cinematography sometimes looks stunning.
There's nothing to fault about the soundtrack, presented here in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Although the movie contains mostly dialogue, the sound engineers produce an effective, often subtle, use of the surrounds, mainly for environmental noises like those of crowds, restaurants, bars, and traffic, but also the occasional noises of war. Bomb blasts will shake you from your seat with their deep bass and impact. Front-channel stereo spread is also impressive, and the midrange remains realistic and well balanced with the rest of the frequency spectrum at all times.
The disc includes three primary bonus items. The first is every disc's obligatory audio commentary, this one by the film's director, John Maybury, and the film's co-star, Matthew Rhys. The men are charming and informative. The second item is a ten-minute featurette, "Looking Over The Edge of Love," in which the director and stars discuss the story and characters. And the third item is a four-minute gag reel of outtakes, the first few pretty funny as the apparently nonsmoking actors try to do scene after scene in which they have to smoke.
The extras conclude with eighteen scene selections; a widescreen theatrical trailer; English as the only spoken language; Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
It's a shame "The Edge of Love" wasn't about Dylan Thomas; he might have made a more interesting subject than the secondary character we barely get to know, hanging about the periphery as he does. Otherwise, the filmmakers give it their all to make the movie as dramatically interesting as possible without really saying anything. When it's over, despite the fine acting and finely detailed period settings, we have to wonder why any of it mattered in the first place.