Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Poetry of War

Contains spoilers.

Should a film try to approximate other arts? Watching The Edge of Love sent me momentarily back to 2005 and the poetry-on-film double-whammy of Sally Potter's Yes- which was literally told via poetry- and Terrence Malick's marvellous The New World, which I said at the time was the closest thing to visual poetry film had ever come. The question of poetry comes up in relation to The Edge of Love because it ostensibly centres around a poet, Dylan Thomas (here played by Matthew Rhys). Director John Maybury doesn't seem to be- unlike Malick and Potter- making this story into any kind of poem, and indeed, the use of Thomas' words is surprisingly sparing and generally aptly-placed. But in the way that poetry- at least in the vein of Thomas' work- uses words and imagery to mean something other, so does Maybury approach the story of Thomas' entwinement with two women: his wife Caitlin (Sienna Miller) and his childhood sweetheart Vera Phillips (Keira Knightley).

What I mean is that this is a story about images and the falsity they create and present. The Edge of Love has four central characters- our additional one being Vera's eventual husband William Killick (Cillian Murphy)- and it ultimately proves not to have a romanticized view of any of them. But their descent into disarray and unhappiness occurs because, in the midst of the panicked, suspended existence that WWII brought, these are four people that don't really know each other at all. The film's first half is full of laughter between bombings, suggestive trios on a bed and cigarettes passed between the women wearing gauzy bohemian clothing. But all this jollity is emblematic of people who are, by necessity of the situation surrounding them (the war), ignoring interpersonal problems. Thomas kind of gets sidelined here because the picture's true 'love story' is actually between the two women- the two characters who, perhaps naturally, understand each other the best, and indeed, it is the breakdown in their trust that spins the two couples away from each other in the end.

The question of who is centralized in this story is both fascinating and perhaps completely irrelevant. Miller and Knightley dominate both press coverage and the posters; but in terms of the thematizing of imagery and poetry, it is perhaps Dylan and Vera's picture. His poetry, when it appears, dominates the soundtrack by blocking out diegetic sound; but this is similar to the repeated occurrences of Vera's underground singing performances, where Maybury focuses his camera close up and square on her, the cinematography misty and gauzy like nowhere else, making her (rather vocally pedestrian) performance central to our understanding of Vera, where otherwise it would have been a momentary distraction. Vera is, if you want, our heroine, and her singing is the way she has forged an identity, which is then squashed by William's insistence on their rushed marriage, and the ultimate requirement of motherhood. The rather damp conclusion is staunchly melancholic- Vera says goodbye to Caitlin across the bonnet of a car, implicitly including Dylan in her goodbye because the Thomas's were her only way to retain her freedom.

All this is to say nothing of how well The Edge of Love achieves these impactful themes. At one point, the thought flashed through my mind that this was kind of like a poem, because the story seemed so loose and the images so translucent that it was not so much a linear narrative as a circulating, elliptical mystery. This is, perhaps, a fitting description for most of the first half, but the move to Wales loses both the visual beauty and the elusivity of the narrative, and becomes more drab and wearing as the characters slip into unhappiness. Knightley, too, gets lost in the second half, her mixture of Vera as pointed yet vulnerable falling into a glut of glum facial expressions and a ripe Welsh accent that basically shouts 'fake' at the top of its voice. Rhys, though, retains the charming arrogance that makes Thomas so hatefully fascinating, and best of all, Miller continues to justify my championing of her by making Caitlin's wilful, acidic personality become slowly eroded by confused, hypocritical misunderstanding. To say little of Maybury- whose direction becomes gradually more unfocused- is perhaps apt, because this is an actor's film that gives its performers the task of unlocking characters trapped behind romanticized or otherwise false images of each other, kept at the edge of love by lack of communication. B-

1 comment:

Cal said...

I couldn't get excited about The Edge of Love at all.

I think part of it is the fact it only has three real settings (the pub, the apartment, the cottage) and they're all so drab and uninteresting. Poetry is something that generates imagery and emotion, and so I don't get why Maybury doesn't do more to give us a sense of the wartime environment -- aside from a very half-hearted, if finely done, sparring of words between Cillian and the older woman in the pub. Otherwise there's virtually no sense of scope as to what's going on around these people.

"Trapped" is definitely the word to describe the characters, but if it's going for the compact character study it's also a failure on that front. I know it bills Keira and Sienna above Matthew, but going into it you at least kind of expect to learn something about Dylan Thomas, aside from the fact that he was a womanising malevolent drunkard. It seems to write him off as wayward and inaccessible from the start, and it's a waste of Rhys' talent really. I adore him in Brothers and Sisters! The relationship between Keira and Sienna is interesting circumstancially, but doesn't really contain anything unique or engaging enough, or plot devices that are markedly different. It's all very standard (Pregnancy, abortion, infidelity, post-traumatic stress) and the love triangle itself is BORING.

Plus points: Sienna, and her general chemistry with Keira. I think the fact that they're friends and got on so well making it really contributed to their on-screen relationship. The costumes, which are good in an understated kind of way.