While World War II raged across Europe, Dylan Thomas served the United Kingdom by writing scripts for propaganda films and reading his poems on the radio, though he struggled throughout with conflicting impulses. How could he support the war effort with positive messages, yet still satisfy a poet’s need to document pain and horror? In John Maybury’s period romance The Edge Of Love—written by noted British playwright Sharman Macdonald—all of London seems to be suffering a similar identity crisis. Rakish aesthetes are doing their part for the troops, while proper society types are behaving like bohemians and falling into bed with each other. With bombs dropping on the city nearly every night, the social rules are being re-written by the hour.
The Edge Of Love uses this topsy-turvy era as the backdrop for a story about Thomas’ tangled love life. Matthew Rhys plays Thomas as a drunken womanizer, while Sienna Miller plays his combative, equally promiscuous wife Caitlin. Keira Knightley is Thomas’ childhood sweetheart, who becomes the couple’s designated confidante, between her singing engagements and penning longing letters to her soldier husband Cillian Murphy. The action moves from underground pubs to seaside cottages to the frontlines of the war, with nearly every scene reinforcing the uncertainty of long-term relationships at a time when death feels imminent.
The problem with The Edge Of Love—beyond the terrible title—is that while the characters’ situational ethics are perfectly understandable, neither Maybury nor Macdonald do much to make them sympathetic. The actors give natural, engaging performances, but Macdonald’s dialogue is pointed and precise in ways that play better onstage than on film, while Maybury is far too fussy with the visuals, filling the frame with symbolic mirrors and characters in direct opposition. Knightley’s similar Atonement drew mixed reviews, but that film had a cinematic sweep that rendered the choices and emotions of the distant past vividly and persuasively. The Edge Of Love is more like a museum piece, placing historical figures in frozen positions, and asking us to judge them as the curators do.