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MOVIE REVIEW

The Edge of Love

Lots of love and a little poetry: 2 women and Dylan Thomas

Matthew Rhys and Sienna Miller star in ''The Edge of Love,'' the story of Dylan Thomas during World War II. Matthew Rhys and Sienna Miller star in ''The Edge of Love,'' the story of Dylan Thomas during World War II. (LIAM DANIEL/ASSOCIATED PRESS/CAPITOL PICTURES)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / April 3, 2009
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'The Edge of Love" is a "great poet" movie, the poet in this case being Dylan Thomas, and it's utter bollocks. How can you tell? The raffish, hard-drinkin' Thomas (Matthew Rhys) finally sits down to compose some verse (it's 1941's "Love in the Asylum") and the words stream out of his inner consciousness directly onto the soundtrack, the musical score surging orgasmically, the work issuing forth complete, each dactyl tucked neatly into place.

This is how art always happens in movies, but someday I'd like to see the real hard work of writing poetry: the procrastination, the dumb luck of inspiration, the coffee, the rewrites. The process is anything but pretty; thus the need in the first place.

"The Edge of Love" isn't really about poetry, though, or even Dylan Thomas, but about the two women who love him - his roistering wife Caitlin MacNamara (Sienna Miller) and friend with occasional benefits Vera Phillips (Keira Knightley) - as they hash out a complicated sisterly bond during the worst days of World War II. Written with purple typewriter ribbon by playwright Sharman Macdonald (a.k.a. Knightley's mum) and very busily directed by John Maybury, it peddles the time-honored myth that poets make a lovely, worthwhile mess of everything they touch, and we're just here to marvel and clean up afterward.

The movie begins amid the horrors of the London Blitz, effectively shown as a time when the roof could crash down on your head at any moment. Thomas is writing scripts for government propaganda films ("Your talents really are wasted here, Dylan," someone says) when he reconnects with Phillips, a childhood love now singing standards to calm the crowds in fallout shelters.

They bond over all things Welsh as he scraps and shags and drinks with Caitlin, daring the two women to be friends and maybe more. Then Vera is diverted by a handsome, attentive army captain, William Killick (Cillian Murphy), whom the war and jealousy will eventually threaten to drive mad. "The Edge of Love" paints Thomas as a goatish satyr, manipulating lesser mortals and crowing, "I sleep with other women because I'm a poet, and poets feed off life!" Caitlin doesn't let him get away with that line, but the movie does.

Maybury tries to replicate the writer's dense thickets of verse with a dense visual style: mirrors and irises and kaleidoscopic refractions until you want to give the director of photography a good shake. It's a handsome movie and full of itself, and it might fool some people who only know Thomas as the fellow who wrote "Do not go gentle into that good night." Yet the filmmakers' insistence on beautiful players in picturesque squalor gives the game away. This one's for the tourists.

The acting suffices. Miller never believably inhabits the time period - she's still playing Edie Sedgwick in "Factory Girl" on some level - but Rhys is good, toadlike company as Thomas, and Murphy is at least easy on the eyes. Knightley is something more: The camera adores her, of course, but the Welsh accent (which sounds convincing enough to an American) frees the actress up to create a rich and unexpected portrait of a smart woman in way over her head. This may be Knightley's first truly mature performance. Too bad it arrives wrapped in doggerel.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

THE EDGE OF LOVE Directed by: John Maybury

Written by: Sharman Macdonald

Starring: Keira Knightley, Sienna Miller, Matthew Rhys, Cillian Murphy

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 111 minutes

Unrated (as R: nudity, sexuality, language, graphic war violence, constant historical smoking)