Notably only for a first act that credibly depicts a three-way — and, eventually, four-way — relationship among friends and lovers without tilting embarrassingly toward titillation and/or soap opera, the blandly titled The Edge of Love is only incidentally a Dylan Thomas biopic. Welshman Matthew Rhys (currently on American television in Brothers & Sisters) plays the poet, and although the film draws on Thomas’ writings in voiceover (some of them the famous archival recordings in the poet’s own voice), he’s never the center of the drama. The film opens close in on a shot of Keira Knightley, playing Vera Phillips, a singer in a London nightclub during World War II. She meets Thomas, apparently an old childhood friend, and is charmed — but surprised when the poet’s wife, Caitlin (Sienna Miller), arrives on the scene. The three of them — starving artist, wife and, perhaps, muse — move in under one roof. Vera also catches the eye of William Killick (Cillian Murphy), a good-looking but perhaps too earnest solider who’s preparing to return to the front lines, and would like to take a wife before he goes back. She agrees, which makes Killick forever a member of this dysfunctional group.
The character dynamics in the film’s first third are actually quite interesting, emphasizing the complicated nature of the friendships rather than banking on easy cliche and prurient detail. The second section, when director John Maybury more directly acknowledges the effect of the war on the soldiers fighting it, and of its random bombing attacks on the city of London, becomes a bit of a horror show — Maybury has a bomb hit a crowded ballroom during a party scene, lingering in the bloody aftermath, and later intercuts a scene where Vera gives birth to her child with images of battlefield trauma. In both cases, the execution is too mannered and perfunctory to have quite the disturbing impact Maybury seems to have intended.
From there, this story has nowhere to go but down, and the narrative really peters out when the unconventional family returns to bleak Wales, living bleakly in a bleak little cottage with a view of the bleak, bleak sea. By the time poor Killick returns from the war, all the money is spent and the honeymoon is truly over — he’s starting to wonder if he’s really the father of Vera’s tiny infant. The film does have a very appealing cast, and I never quite got tired of watching them go through the motions — Knightley has a few scenes toward the end of the film where she is, finally, decidedly and unglamorously distraught, and Murphy does an especially nice job of appearing at first as a little bit of a charming but empty uniform, and revealing layers of trauma and resentment after he returns from the front. Miller exudes an infectious breeziness combined with sadness, and although this isn’t exactly hagiography, Rhys never quite rises above the screenplay’s stock characterizations to reveal much fresh about the famously alcoholic poet he’s meant to embody.
I’d like to say something nice about the cinematography, which may well be lush and seductive, but the New York critics screening I saw was projected from an artifact-riddled digital source that resembled a bad DVD-R — during some of the film’s darker scenes, I felt like I was squinting at a YouTube clip — so I can have no comment. With that caveat, I’d still say that, if you really need your fix of historical biopic and/or BBC melodrama, you can safely wait for this Britpic to appear on American telly.