Somewhere, buried deep down, there are probably some real emotions and honest moments to be had in “The Edge of Love.” They’re hard to find, though, smothered beneath self-aware, hyperstylized visuals and corny, old-fashioned melodrama.
Pity, too. “The Edge of Love” features a foursome of actors — Keira Knightley, Sienna Miller, Matthew Rhys and Cillian Murphy — who are clearly up for more vibrant, daring material, who are fearless about allowing the raw, ugly side of human nature show through.
And the potential was inherently there: Supposedly inspired by true events during World War II, “The Edge of Love” follows the toxic, codependent relationship between Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (Rhys); his wife, Caitlin (Miller); his childhood girlfriend, Vera (Knightley); and her eventual husband, William (Murphy).
The couples get thrown together in London during the Blitz of 1940. Dylan is reluctantly writing propaganda films and Vera is singing for the huddled masses in underground shelters when the two reconnect years after growing up together in Swansea. (Rhys, co-star of TV’s “Brothers & Sisters,” comes off as rakishly handsome, selfish and charismatic in this warts-and-all depiction, written by Sharman MacDonald, Knightley’s mother.)
Director John Maybury saturates some of these early scenes in deep blues and reds, self-consciously accentuating Knightley’s piercing cheekbones and carefully painted lips. He’s also obsessed with the sensuality of smoking — the way it looks on screen, the suggestiveness of the act — to the point where all four actors constantly have a cigarette in their hands, even first thing in the morning. While that may be historically accurate, after a little while it also feels comically distracting.
Anyway, Dylan and Vera’s obvious flirtation gets cut short when his volatile, alcoholic and wildly needy wife shows up. But her presence provides a spark in Maybury’s otherwise self-serious film, and Miller’s unpredictable performance adds an element of danger. The dynamic between Caitlin and Vera is intriguing — it’s infused with a jealousy and a curiosity that borders on sexual tension, but ultimately evolves into a deep friendship as the two women figure out how to share this brilliant but incorrigibly unfaithful man in the middle.
Murphy’s character ends up being a bit of an afterthought; a soldier who pursues Vera from the start, his William eventually gets her to fall in love and marry him, only to be called off to war. Their romance felt forced to begin with. Once he returns to her much later in the film — when she, Dylan and Caitlin have run out of money and returned to the familiarity of the Welsh coast — he’s a shaken shell of himself, and he doesn’t know how to be a father to the baby Vera had while he was gone.
The parallel editing between William helping saw off a wounded soldier’s bloody arm during battle and Vera screaming in pain during the throes of childbirth is needlessly over the top. But it’s a pretty typical example of Maybury’s emphasis on imagery at all costs.
“The Edge of Love,” a Capitol Films release, is rated Not rated but contains sexual situations, graphic violence, language and mature themes. Running time: 111 minutes. Two stars out of four.