Dylan Thomas may have been a great poet (the jury’s still out, actually), but he was certainly a complete pill in his private life. That’s the verdict, at least, of the arty biopic starring Keira Knightley and Sienna Miller that opened this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival on June 18th. As played, all too convincingly by Matthew Rhys, Thomas comes across as a shiftless, self-centered sponger. And that’s when he’s sober.
Fortunately, the sozzled poet isn’t the centre of attention in John Maybury’s film (scripted, incidentally, by Keira’s mum, playwright Sharman Macdonald). The movie’s main interest is the two women in his life, his childhood sweetheart Vera Phillips (played with a credible lilting Welsh accent by Knightley) and his free-spirited wife, Caitlin (Miller), who together formed an uneasy ménage à trois with Thomas in Blitz-torn wartime London.
As the film develops, this trio then becomes an even more awkward foursome when gallant army officer William Killick (Cillian Murphy) appears on the scene and determinedly woos cabaret singer Vera. And it’s his shell-shocked return from fighting in Greece that finally brings the quartet’s tangled relationships to crisis point.
Sadly, Macdonald’s screenplay is too fuzzy to deliver the emotional pay off the story requires, leaving the viewer to grope towards the realisation that it’s the women’s bond with each other rather than their ties to Thomas that forms the true heart of the picture.
As for director Maybury, he does a good job on a restricted budget of evoking a wartime London of fusty pubs and dingy lodgings, while inserting documentary footage of the Blitz to provide the bigger picture. He also deserves credit for throwing in some less familiar period details such as the cabaret concerts in the Tube where Vera performs (yes, Keira sings!). But his penchant for distorted camera angles and mirrored reflections soon becomes distracting.
That said, Knightley and Miller do provide real emotional depth and complexity to their characters (enough, please, of those sneering put-downs of ‘Ikea’ Knightley), but it isn’t always easy to buy them as real women of the period. When the film delivers some artfully grainy home movie footage of the pair frolicking on the beach at New Quay, the pair could easily be a couple of models from a Boden fashion shoot at play.
Certificate 15. Released 20 June.
See Keira Knightley interviewed on BBC Breakfast
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