Edge of Love, The: (2009): Starring Keira Knightley and Sienna Miller

By Michael T. Dennis

 

“The Edge of Love” offers a compelling view of war beyond the battlefield, using World War II as the backdrop for an intimate character drama that’s as intense as any combat sequence.  Keira Knightley, Sienna Miller, Cillian Murphy, and Matthew Rhys form a triangle-plus-one, in which allegiances are put to the test and jealousy is pitted against devotion.


The movie received its world premiere at the 2008 Edinburgh Film Fest (last June, as opening night) and is now getting a theatrical release in the U.S. by Summit.

A powerful image of contrasts opens the drama as Knightley’s Vera sings at a makeshift bandstand in the corner of an underground bomb shelter.  Colored spotlights and her ruby lips interrupt the dreariness of the tunnel, where families huddle together to avoid the raids from a war that’s already too close to home.  But for Vera, it’s just another show, a dose of escapism during Britain’s darkest days.

 

Posing at an aboveground bar after the performance, Vera bumps into her childhood friend, the poet Dylan Thomas (Rhys).  Though married to the feisty Caitlin (Miller), Dylan expresses an interest in Vera, which is typical of a lonely bachelor.  This, it turns out, is part of his artistic process.  Keeping in pursuit of other women adds dramatics to an otherwise uneventful life; Dylan is exempt from military service for medical condition, which enables him to keep the poetry flowing.

 

Vera and Caitlin form an unlikely friendship, united in their affection for Dylan, but also able to commiserate about the extraordinary patience called for by his artistic temperament.  This already precarious dynamics is changed when a handsome young soldier named William (Murphy), whose relentless pursuit of Vera pays off in a last minute marriage just before his deployment.  During his tour of duty, Vera gives birth to their child.

 

Living in relative seclusion at two seaside cottages in rural Wales, Dylan, Caitlin, and Vera settle into a new routine, based on mutual necessity that the returning William interrupts.  Deeply disturbed by the horrors he has witnessed, William begins to doubt that Vera’s child is his.  He is suspicious of her relationship with Dylan (it is revealed that, many years ago, he was Vera’s first lover), and feeling unappreciated in the country that used to be home. William’s nerves snap in a moment of violence that involves a pilfered grenade.  Ultimately, Vera and Caitlin are left with the decision of how to reconcile their own camaraderie with the needs of the men they love, men whose moments of greatness have severe, lasting costs.

 

Unlike many wartime romantic epics, which rely on quiet melodrama, “The Edge of Love” defies its title and paints a moving picture of how war tests a whole society and its diverse populace.  John Maybury’s direction and Sharman Macdonald’s script remain focused on the lives of the four characters, and they wisely avoid giving too much attention to war images, seen in so many previous films of this kind.

 

Four superb performances define characters that are believable in their complexity.  Caitlin tolerates her husband’s philandering, in part because of the pressure it takes off of her, but keeps a watchful eye that it doesn’t go too far.  Miller’s subtle prowess makes her character more engaging than just playing the jealous wife or detached muse, types that would offer too many easy answers.

 

Knightley’s Vera is equally complicated, caught in some stage of coming to terms with her loving friendship with Dylan even as her romantic love for William grows in his absence.  Murphy is equally adept at depicting both sides of William: the dauntless young soldier and the unstable victim of war’s psychological trauma.   Each of these characters earns our sympathy, and remarkably, though victims of circumstances themselves, none is made to play the villain.

 

Ironically, Dylan Thomas may be the narrative’s least nuanced character, despite being based on the real-life poet.  Excerpts from his poetry add commentary to the story in voice-overs, but once Dylan’s eccentricity is established, Rhys has little to do but maintain appearances as the other characters revolve around him.  It’s noteworthy that the biography of Dylan Thomas served as inspiration for “The Edge of Love,” with producer Rebekah Gilbertson setting out to tell the story of his association with her grandparents, here loosely fictionalized as Vera and William.

 

Despite this historical grounding, and working effectively as a period piece, “The Edge of Love” has the timeless quality of a fable.  Its question of how to escape the far-reaching effects of a war could as easily be asked about Vietnam or Iraq. 

 

The film’s working title, “The Best Time of Our Lives,” recalls how, in all these ways, it bears resemblance to William Wyler’s 1946 Oscar-winning “The Best Years of Our Lives,” a poignant American chronicle of how the fighting continues for soldiers even when the war machines are silenced.  Like Wyler’s film, “The Edge of Love” offers hope while defying the happy ending that would undo its meaning.  Thoughtfully told as a story for today’s world, the suffering it hails as a side effect of war is likely to resonate long into the future.

Cast

 

Vera Phillips – Keira Knightley
Caitlin Thomas – Sienna Miller
Dylan ThomasMatthew Rhys
William Killick – Cillian Murphy
Anita Shenkin – Anne Lambton
Nicolette – Camilla Rutherford
Anthony Devas – Alastair Mackenzie
The Crooner – Suggs

Credits

 

A Lionsgate release of a Capitol Films, BBC Films presentation, in association with the Wales Creative IP Fund, Prescience Film Partners, of a Sarah Radclyffe, Rainy Day Films production, with the support of the U.K. Film Council Development Fund.

Produced by Rebekah Gilbertson, Radclyffe.

Executive producers, David Bergstein, Linda James, Hannah Leader, Joe Oppenheimer, Tim Smith, David M Thompson, Paul Brett, Nick Hill.

Co-producers, Huw Penalt Jones, Bill Godfrey.

Directed by John Maybury.

Screenplay, Sharman Macdonald, based on books by David N. Thomas and Esther Killick.
Camera, Jonathan Freeman.

Editor, Emma Hickox

Music, Angelo Badalamenti; music supervisor, Becky Bentham.

Production designer, Alan MacDonald; supervising art director, Mark Raggett.

Costume designer, April Ferry.

Visual effects supervisor, John Moffatt.

Supervising sound editor, Tim Hands.