London, World War II. Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (Rhys) is in love with both his wife Caitlin (Miller) and his childhood friend Vera (Knightley), now married to the devoted William (Murphy). But Dylans refusal to commit to one woman could destroy the lives
Poetry rarely comes from a place of happiness, unless you’re a) a chanting football supporter after a successful penalty kick, or b) Pam Ayers. Being concerned with neither, John Maybury’s semi-biopic of Dylan Thomas (Matthew Rhys) prefers to dwell in the boozier, smokier, more melancholic moods that inspired the Welsh bard. But this is not so much a story of Dylan’s life as it is a snapshot of a brief period when his youthful sweetheart Vera (Keira Knightley) comes back into his life and enters into a relationship of smudgy sexuality with Thomas and his wife Caitlin (Sienna Miller), which continues as Vera’s husband (Cillian Murphy) is despatched to war to see things that will addle his mind and sap his social skills. The result is a muddle of characterisation, but it’s not without moments of beauty.
It is most successful in its first half. Maybury paints a tragically romantic vision of war-torn London, where the dropping of bombs is an excuse to grab the most attractive person in reach or hop on down to a Tube station where Knightley’s chanteuse will entertain you. Dylan - whose lungs prevent him from fighting for his country - spits sugared venom; Vera smoulders like a perfume ad; and Caitlin cartwheels with no knickers. It’s all on the intriguing side of complicated and, largely, a good time.
But this giddy pluck and drunken defiance of impending tragedy can’t last and, as with any complicated romance, the love quadrangle must collapse. It’s here that the film gets sludgy. The setting shifts from the sultry smoke of London to the damp wool of coastal Wales, leaving the script to make up for the sudden halt in beauty.
It becomes apparent that beneath their hedonistic crust, the characters haven’t been given any complexity, so dissecting them just as circumstance kills their lifestyle reveals little more than exhausted livers, bile and twitchy libidos. Maybury isolates his characters and puts an unflattering spotlight on how boring and self-obsessed they have become, while an intensity is demanded of the friendship between Vera and Caitlin that doesn’t seem to have a basis other than proximity. Although much of the incident happens in the second half - an abortion, a shooting, a court case — it happens to people it’s become hard to care about.
The cast is strong and the first act has an intriguingly dreamy quality, but it gives way to a soggy ending.