"The Edge of Love" has, as they say, all the tools, all the elements that usually make for success. It ought to be coaxing superlatives from all and sundry, but instead it leaves a bitter, unsatisfying aftertaste that lingers in the mind.
Certainly the stars seemed aligned for "Edge" to turn into a quality British production. Its quartet of actors -- Keira Knightley, Sienna Miller, Cillian Murphy and Matthew Rhys -- are gifted and almost criminally attractive. Its director, John Maybury ("Love Is the Devil"), is well regarded, and its story involves the private lives of two of Britain's biggest literary celebrities, Welsh poet Dylan Thomas and his wife, Caitlin.
Unfortunately, besides showing us the messy lives of the young and gifted, it's not clear what "The Edge of Love" thinks it's doing. Sometimes glossy, sometimes hard-edged, the film alternates between glitz and unpleasantness and ends as a kind of glum soap opera, too glam to be bleak and too bleak to be so glam.
For though the Thomases were famous and their relationship with Vera Phillips and William Killick was significant enough to have inspired a book, taken all together these people's lives come off as irritating, not enthralling. To put it bluntly, you don't particularly like anyone in this quartet when they're happy, and you like them less when they're not.
It's the happy part we experience first and happy everyone seems to be even though the film opens in a London barely surviving the harshness of the World War II German blitz. Vera Phillips (Knightley), her face dominating the screen in a series of lush close-ups, is a bomb shelter singer trying to divert displaced Londoners.
Her singing -- and her looks -- catch the attention of William (Murphy), an earnest, four-square British soldier about to be shipped overseas. Professing eternal love and all other kinds as well, he simply won't be brushed off.
Which is bad timing for William, because Welsh Vera has just run into her childhood friend and onetime beau Dylan (Rhys). No sooner does this pair get comfortable then who should show up but Dylan's wife and world-class flirt, Caitlin (Miller). She looks Vera up and down and says, one impossibly thin woman to another, "I might like you. Then again I might not."
This kind of endlessly arch dialogue, filled with glib, jaunty-in-the-face-of-death rejoinders, is the staple of the first part of the script written by British playwright Sharman Macdonald, who happens to be Knightley's mother.
Even in these early stages, when the bright-young-things vibe is strong and the director can't get enough of those sleek close-ups, it is hard not to view these people, especially the egocentric poet, as less charming than the film considers them to be.
It doesn't get any better when things get worse. William is sent overseas, directly into the horrors of war, and the screams of wounded men in pain are soon intercut with the screams of a woman giving birth back home in Britain. Yes, this can be that kind of a movie.
Someone, it's hard to remember who, has the bright idea that Dylan, Caitlin and Vera should leave London and move back to Wales, renting adjoining cottages near the picturesque sea. A good idea if what you are looking for is loneliness, jealousy and messy emotional entanglements. Which only intensify when William, on leave from the war's awfulness, shows up as well.
Those who remember Marbury's "Love Is the Devil," his biopic about British artist Francis Bacon and his painful romantic entanglements, know about this director's passion for the bleakest personal dramas, here served up in a particularly unappetizing form. When Joyce Carol Oates popularized the term "pathography" to describe biography that relishes "the sensational underside of its subject's life," this is what she had in mind.
'The Edge of Love'
MPAA rating: No rating
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes
Playing: At the Nuart Theatre, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 281-8223