Movie Review: 'The Edge of Love'

Dylan Thomas (Matthew Rhys) and his wife, Caitlin (Sienna Miller), become entangled in a love triangle.
Dylan Thomas (Matthew Rhys) and his wife, Caitlin (Sienna Miller), become entangled in a love triangle. (By Liam Daniel -- Capitol Pictures Via Associated Press)
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By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 20, 2009

Keira Knightley has become the go-to girl for period films, and with good reason. From a feisty Jane Austen heroine in "Pride and Prejudice" to a tortured World War II-era lover in "Atonement," Knightley, with her doe-eyed face and lithe frame, somehow seems right in any epoch.

In "The Edge of Love," John Maybury's speculative investigation of the romantic entanglements of poet Dylan Thomas, Knightley plays Vera Phillips, Thomas's real-life childhood friend from Wales. As the film opens, the two reconnect during the London Blitz, when Dylan (Matthew Rhys) is writing British propaganda and Vera is crooning in tube stations turned into makeshift cabarets. For a moment it looks like the obvious spark between them will ignite into something more, when -- what ho! -- up pops Dylan's fiery Irish wife, Caitlin (Sienna Miller), and the three embark on a by turns passionate and toxic menage a trois. (Cillian Murphy plays Vera's long-suffering husband, William Killick.)

As one of those period films that are Knightley's forte, "The Edge of Love" presents short, epigrammatic scenes stuffed with period detail, which often teeters on the edge of almost surreal theatricality (the movie opens on the image of Vera, her impossibly white teeth surrounded by lush red lips, warbling while London burns). You never quite know where you are or what's going on as "The Edge of Love's" three gorgeous protagonists drink, smoke, flirt and verbally parry their way in and out of one another's lives. That disorientation suits the sequences of the film set in a London plunged into disarray, but once the household decamps for Wales, while Vera's doleful husband fights in Greece, dishevelment turns to despair and the film's structure falls apart. The courtroom drama that takes up most of the third act seems tonally off and tacked on.

Maybury is a filmmaker of lush visual imagination. Like "Love Is the Devil," his brilliant portrait of painter Francis Bacon, "The Edge of Love" is shot through with expressive flourishes and tricks of the eye. But they're too often used for effect rather than enlargement, and for all its vivid evocation of its characters' tomorrow-we-die bonhomie, the film finally never quite convinces viewers of its central subject: the sisterly, almost sapphic bond between Vera and Caitlin.

That none of the protagonists earns the audience's sympathy is more likely a failure of the real-life characters rather than the actors, all of whom deliver fine performances -- especially Rhys, who seems to be channeling Richard Burton channeling Dylan Thomas at his most manipulatively loutish. "The Edge of Love" may not offer much by way of deeper understanding of Thomas's poetry, but it proves yet again that it's possible to love the art and not the artist.

The Edge of Love (110 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated. It contains profanity, nudity and adult themes.

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