“I love Irish writers… like Dylan Thomas,” Sharon Stone once famously blurted. Now THE EDGE OF LOVE, John Maybury’s non-biopic of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, opens the Edinburgh Film Festival. Collecting my press pass, I hurry along the sunbaked streets to see it.
I’m wary of films about writers, so I should confess to going in with trepidation, but (a) it’s the start of the Fest and there was nothing else on and (b) the sun was shining and I needed to gain the shade of an auditorium before my pale Scottish skin acquired the hue of scalded pork. The Cineworld nestles in the heart of Edinburgh’s Fountainbridge area, once home to Sean Connery’s milk round, but the milk float doesn’t stop here anymore. If they’d screened the movie at the Dominion Cinema in Morningside I could have called this piece “Death shall have no Dominion,” but reality is an imperfect form of poetry.
Why this phobia about writer-films? I *AM* a writer, for starters, and I can’t think of anything less interesting to watch than me, sitting here, typing this and cooking spaghetti at the same time. Can you?
Writer-films tend to boil down into two categories: those that try to capture the white heat of the creative experience (and fail) and those that turn out to be only incidentally about writers. IRIS was a love story with Altzheimer’s as antagonist. SYLVIA was a love story with depression as antagonist. TOM AND VIV (does anybody even remember that one?) was a love story with P.M.T. as antagonist. Really! I’m not joking.
The third category is occupied mainly by Paul Schrader’s MISHIMA which boldly tries to recreate the writer’s fictional worlds in cinematic form. This is risky, in that the filmed versions may not really give a true impression of what is important in a writer’s work (the specific formal qualities of WRITING), but it is probably the only plausible approach that could make filming a writer’s life worthwhile. Cronenberg’s NAKED LUNCH and Soderbergh’s KAFKA take a fourth route, injecting the author into his own fictional world (or a version of it), which seems like an interesting approach even if it fails.
A recent car advert — wait — yes, here we go: THIS recent car advert–
— used Dylan Thomas’ UNDER MILK WOOD, spoken by Richard Burton, as backdrop to some attractive images, attempting to sell you something. Maybury’s film uses the poetry in exactly the same fashion, and what is being sold is a concept of British “heritage cinema”, the kind of stuff The Film Council and BBC Films, in this case, like to make so they can feel culturally responsible. The movie is actually less successful than the car ad, since in the ad we can actually focus on what’s being said. The Maybury drowns out the whispered verse with Angelo Badalamenti’s typically lustrous score and with an overactive effects track.
Yeah, about that… There’s an undeclared war between composers and foley artists which is highly detrimental to any poetic effect in cinema. What’s the point in paying top dollar for Badalamenti’s services if you’re going to let some effects man with a sheet of sandpaper and some loose change widdle all over the soundtrack? Sound effects work can be a tremendous boon, anchoring picture to sound with deftly chosen, unobtrusive little connections, or it can be creative and miraculous in itself, as in the films of Jacques Tati. But there’s a fashion for sticking an effect on EVERY TINY MOVEMENT, and it hacks me off. Sometimes the audio track should be simple.
The other aspect of film fashion that’s tripping this film up is fast cutting. This movie isn’t even a serious offender, but it’s anxious to serve up a new image or angle every few seconds, no matter how sumptuous the current one is (the photography, by Jonathan Freeman, is always very attractive, although the constant smoky shafts of light feel more ’80s than ’40s). When Maybury produces one of his striking visual tropes, like an overhead view of Sienna Miller and Keira Knightley lying head to head on the floor, with Knightley appearing upside-down, which cuts to an inverted version of the same shot so that it’s now Miller upside-down, the effect is diffused, rendered less consequential, by the gratuitous insertion of a side-on wide-shot, providing context, sure, but MEANINGLESS, UNNECESSARY context.
This anxiety about keeping our interest also perhaps explains the superimposed titles announcing that we are in the London underground during the blitz, or in Greece. Of course the first fact is utterly obvious to anybody with knowledge of British wartime history and the ability to see that the shot is of an underground station crowded with sheltering people in ’40s dress, and the second fact doesn’t particularly matter. But the Film Council really wants us to understand what the Film Council wants us to understand.
Maybury, whose experimental films win plaudits and whose LOVE IS THE DEVIL was an art film about an artist that genuinely did justice to the art and the person, while using cinematic language to capture the feeling of Francis Bacon from the inside, seems to be under the close supervision of the Style Police. The Heritage Cinema Goon Squad have their eye on him, and they whisper darkly that he may, of course, use stylised effects, odd angles and CG manipulations of the imagery, as long as —
1) He uses them VERY BRIEFLY.
2) He spreads them thin so that the overall surface of the film is totally conventional.
3) He uses them in a purely gestural way so that they DON’T MAKE ANY DIFFERENCE.
So much for style. The film-making is perfectly inoffensive and just interesting enough so that we know a director turned up each day.
The script takes the traditional approach to a writer’s life, ignoring the work and concentrating on the important business of showing that artists are generally shits. One thing that stops this rather traditional approach from seeming immediately boring is a certain lack of focus in the writing — there are four main characters, and absolutely no effort has been made to select from their various stories and relationships a central thread upon which to hang the film. The coda strongly suggests that this is that rarity, a love story between two heterosexual women — but this won’t do at all, since the climax doesn’t actually offer an active role for one of them. But as I say, the confusion works in the film’s favour to some extent, preventing it from becoming a banal piece of poet-bashing.
Dialogue is generally good, avoiding obvious period mannerisms but equally steering clear of anachronism. The film deserves credit for mapping a splendidly twisted set of emotional knots. None of it exercises any real pull on the emotions (I’m a sucker for WWII British stuff, a screen brimming with stiff upper lips will usually have me blubbering, but this movie is all about Celts emoting at each other, so there was no room for me to weep). Acting was first-rate though, and each of the thesps deserves special consideration.
Matthew Rhys, by rights the star, is credited fourth, presumably because he’s less famous than the others. I bet Keira Knightley’s agent bullies Matthew Rhys’s agent, flicking his ears and pulling his tie tight. But this obscurity can’t last, as he’s endearing, gorgeous and interesting (can any other Brit prettyboy tick all those boxes?). His smile has the same repulsive allure as Richard Burton’s, a comparison he’ll probably be bludgeoned with until he takes to drink, but he’s way cuter than Burton.
Sienna Miller, often dismissed in the past, is lusty and sympathetic here. (Odd, with the script being fairly brimming with passions consummated, that the film is so squeamish about the human body. A paroxysm of editing prevents us catching more than a glimpse of Miller climbing into a bath, lest we be turned to stone by presumably the Medusa-like gaze of her backside, and the men remain chastely covered at all times. A needle stitching a wound is the fleshiest image on display. Even the Thomas’ baby son appears to be devoid of genitals.)
Cillian Murphy presents his usual smooth marble countenance and steely blue eyes, and rivets the attention, but his character’s post-traumatic stress disorder is chucked in as an afterthought and never acquires the necessary dramatic force. What should have been a central plank of the drama is reduced to a couple of bits of “avant-garde” doodling from Maybury. You can’t really bring this stuff alive without choosing a P.O.V. character and sticking with him (as in Henry Jaglom’s disturbing TRACKS) or at least showing the disturbed behaviour develop over time, but the film is two-thirds over by the time the script gets around to Murphy’s plight.
Keira Knightley. All too often something of a stick, that girl. A wooden stick. A wooden stick, exquisitely whittled into the shape of another, thinner wooden stick. Here and there have been signs of improvement, and now, like many dedicated pretty girls before her, she has evolved into a proper actress. The difficult Welsh accent (one false step and you’re in Pakistan) is grasped firmly, but even more impressive are the Welsh facial expressions. I, like you, dear reader, was unaware such expressions existed, but they do, and K.K. has mastered all seven of them. For a moment it looks like at least three of them are going to be intensely annoying, but that soon passes as you get to know the character.
Two cameos deserve mention: Jenny Runacre is glimpsed as “Woman in Yellow Dress”, the kind of walk-on that actually makes me slightly cross. Runacre was part of ’70s Britain’s greatest screen couple with Jon Finch in THE FINAL PROGRAMME, and she’s the only woman to have won the Alternative Miss World Competition, an event generally favouring the drag queen. She deserves starring parts. I’m reminded of Kathleen Byron standing mutely in a graveyard in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. Of course it’s nice to see her again, but it’s a terrible insult to use her as an extra. That’s like hiring Maggie Smith to tend the honeywagon.
Secondly there’s Suggs, in the important minor role of “Crooner”, a slightly distracting presence for those of us who grew up with Madness on the radio, and one that immediately suggests a double-bill of this movie with THE TALL GUY. An air-raid! I immediately fear for Suggs’ safety. A flurry of frantic frames, lit by flailing flashlights, finishes with a frightful fact — Suggs is slain.
Suggs is slain.