All the Nice Girls Love a Poet

The latest literary biopic, The Edge of Love, presents Dylan Thomas as a dreary boorish philanderer, not a great writer

Peter Whittle

This is a film about the tangled love life of Dylan Thomas, although you wouldn’t know it from the title. It conjures up those pink-covered Mills & Boon romantic novelettes — “she stood quivering on the edge of love, before his manly arms dragged her in!” — which used to be scattered around doctors’ waiting rooms. It’s a title which is hedging its bets, maybe even avoiding the fact that the film’s central character is that most uncommercial of heroes, a Welsh poet.

Fair enough; we might have had the less inhibited Shakespeare In Love, but the producers here must have thought that younger audiences would be drawn into, say, Dylan in Love on the mistaken assumption that it was about something blowin’ in the wind or, worse, an adult sequel to The Magic Roundabout. Thomas, who died in 1953 aged just 39, might well have been an iconic figure for generations who grew up hearing his broadcasts on the BBC, but he is no longer a fashionable literary name.

Film treatments of famous lives are, after a lull, proving popular at present, reflecting the increasingly biographical way in which we now look at history and the world around us. This presents few problems when it comes to visual artists; the audience can at least view the results of the agony and the ecstasy. If permission to show the actual work in the film is refused, as it was with Love is the Devil, which explored the affair between Francis Bacon and George Dyer, a really talented director can use his cameras to get round the problem. John Maybury was the man behind that film, and he managed to use cinematic smoke and mirrors to create a startling sense of Bacon’s twisted visions.

But movies about literary heroes like Dylan Thomas suffer from the fact there’s little actually to see. Maybury is our director here too, but there are no such pyrotechnics. Film-makers have never really resolved the problem of how to make the written word come alive, and so they resort to stilted recreations of texts, or flat-footed fragments in voice-over, which is what we get here. There are short extracts from seven of Thomas’s poems, which are meant, in Maybury’s words, to act “almost like a Greek chorus echoing elements of the storyline as it progresses”. This is to concede that it’s that storyline which is ultimately most important, and that the writing simply isn’t enough; for literary figures to work as movie subjects, it’s best if there is some extra-curricular gimmick, whether it be dementia (Iris), suicide (Sylvia) or a crazy wife (Tom and Viv).

Sexual affairs and romanticised heavy drinking such as Thomas’s don’t in themselves really cut the mustard, especially if the characters live in adjoining bungalows. Your actors therefore become all-important. The Edge of Love, which is set during the Second World War when Thomas was writing scripts for government propaganda films, has two modish names: Sienna Miller as the fast and loose Caitlin, and Keira Knightley as the childhood sweetheart turned cabaret singer Vera Phillips, who comes back into his life while the bombs fall on Fitzrovia. All the nice girls love an artist, and with Thomas in common the two bond. The intention seems to be for us to see him through their eyes; it is their film, if not really their story, and the casting of Thomas himself (Matthew Rhys) feels almost like an afterthought. Those unacquainted with the poet will be at a loss to see what these women find so compelling in this boorish and, as he’s played here, frankly rather dreary figure. Rhys apparently slaved over tapes to get the voice right when reading pieces from “Lament” and “Love in the Asylum”, but I would be surprised if it inspired viewers to seek out more of the poetry, in the same way that one small snippet of “Funeral Blues” in Four Weddings and a Funeral caused a rush on Auden.

So do the girls fill the gap where their man should be? Certainly the camera lingers over them as they share both a bed and their past histories. Sienna Miller remains resolutely contemporary, but at least looks as though she has blood, bone and muscle. Keira Knightley, on the other hand, never loses her cool self-consciousness. Her particular brand of beauty — pristine, boyish-limbed and brittle — is the sort which appeals most to fashion editors. In repose, the face can be exquisite, but when she smiles or laughs we are suddenly confronted with the jagged grin of a pumpkin at Hallowe’en. Neither ultimately convinces us, and our attention wanders instead to the background of London in the Blitz, which is quite wonderfully recreated.

But there’s another problem, one caused by our more general cultural obsession with youth. The superficiality in most biopics is compounded by the lack of adultness and weight in so many contemporary screen actors. Miller and Knightley, along with Cillian Murphy, who plays William Killick, Vera’s war hero husband, come across as children who have been let loose in their grandparents’ walk-in wardrobes. Dwarfed by their surroundings, they appear to be playing at grown-ups — an impression enhanced here by the naughty, incessant smoking. Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, those darlings of the Brit-pack from another era, once slipped into the characters of Nelson and Emma Hamilton like hands into tailored gloves. It seems that when it comes to biopics now, we must be content with mittens.

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