'The Escape': Film Review

Wrenching scenes from a disintegrating marriage, beautifully played.
5/11/2018

Starring opposite Dominic Cooper, Gemma Arterton plays a wife and mother who is painfully aware that she needs to change her life.

As The Escape begins, a woman studies her face in the mirror — the kind of moment we've seen countless times in movies. But we've never before seen Gemma Arterton, who plays the character, explore psychological depths as intense as those she inhabits here. The film poses existential questions with an unblinking, Bergmanesque intimacy, its emotional topography first revealed in a scene as remarkable as the looking-glass sequence is familiar: A morning quickie lays bare the chasm, perhaps unbridgeable, between a husband and wife.

Working in an improvisatory vein, in actual locations rather than constructed sets, writer-director Dominic Savage gives this story of a married woman's despair and awakening a powerful, lived-in immediacy. It's also the story of a man's struggle to understand his wife's pain, and the tortured, tender chemistry between leads Arterton and Dominic Cooper is profoundly affecting, at times shattering.

Arterton plays Tara — who's notably nameless for the film's first hour, reflecting the way the roles of wife and mom have subsumed her. The house she shares with Mark (Cooper) and their two young children in the London suburb of Kent sits in a cul-de-sac, accentuating how isolated she feels while her husband goes off to his white-collar job. After dropping her daughter off at school, Tara is paralyzed for a second by a jolt of panic or dread; whatever it is, it's clear that she's at a point where she can no longer pretend that things are OK.

Mark senses it, too, even before she puts a name to it: "I'm not happy." Arterton delivers the line just above a whisper, finding everything that's fraught and liberating in such plain, unvarnished words. Laurie Rose's dynamic camerawork captures the way Mark watches his wife, mid-kiss, as though trying to determine where his dependable mate has gone. The DP moves in close to look unflinchingly at how oblivious Mark can be, too, taking her for granted as housekeeper, parent and lover. In bed, he fumbles toward her happily and grunts in ecstasy while Tara, immobile, silently weeps.

It would have been easy to turn Mark into a clueless, self-involved brute, but Cooper's performance is thrilling in its complexity. Mark believes in the life(style) they're building, and his inability to grasp what more Tara could possibly want, or why, is heartbreaking. By turns desperate, angry and grief-stricken, he tries to mend what he expects, in his practical way, is fully capable of be repaired.

But Arterton, whose performance is deeply internalized and often silent — and whose face, regarded in somewhat overused close-up, is the movie's central landscape — signals with every gesture and glance that Tara's discontent is no simple matter. The score by Anthony John and Alexandra Harwood is in sync with her shifting perspectives; sometimes it's a thrumming pulse, sometimes lush and plaintive, and at still other points it expresses a stripped-down serenity.

A solo day trip into London releases something in Tara, and produces her first genuine smile during the film's running time. Eventually another, more spontaneous journey will take her farther afield, to Paris, in part to see the medieval tapestries that have lately captivated her. What unfolds in the City of Light, including an encounter with a photographer (actor-filmmaker Jalil Lespert, in his first English-language role), is romantic in every sense of the word — purposely rendered in a way that's so perfect and sensual, it might be a dream, or a fantasy primed to self-destruct.

Arterton has been various combinations of sensuous, earthy, gumptious and stolid in such films as Tamara Drewe, Gemma Bovery and Their Finest. The essential stillness of her work here is a revelation. She understands how alone Tara is amid all the busyness of an unfulfilling domestic life, and the weight she carries knowing that there can be no easy solution to her problem.

Savage's scenario shows too that she has no ready emotional support. Seeking understanding from her working-class single mother (Frances Barber), she gets nothing of the kind; all the older woman can see is Tara's upwardly mobile way of life. "You've got it made," she tells her in a tart exchange. It takes a stranger, played by Marthe Keller, to offer the wisdom and compassion that Tara needs. She delivers it in a way that's almost surreal in its matter-of-factness, particularly because Savage places the two women's conversation after a crucial narrative ellipsis.

Even with its attention to quotidian detail, The Escape is a movie about ellipses, in a sense: disconnection, leaps and the things we avoid looking at directly. Tara's struggle might at first feel dated. Some viewers will wonder why she doesn't just get a job, a housekeeper, a nanny. But even in 2018, it's no easy thing for a woman to confront her ambivalence toward motherhood — not the fashionably witty complaints of a mommy blogger, but a marrow-deep conflict. Tara is searching her soul, not looking for life hacks.

Production companies: Lorton Entertainment, Shoebox Films
Distributor: IFC Films
Cast: Gemma Arterton, Dominic Cooper, Jalil Lespert, Frances Barber, Marthe Keller
Director-screenwriter: Dominic Savage
Producer: Guy Heeley
Executive producers: Gemma Arterton, Paul Webster, Julian Bird, Joseph Berry Jr.
Director of photography: Laurie Rose
Costume designer: Liza Bracey
Editor: David Charap
Composers: Anthony John, Alexandra Harwood
Casting: Shaheen Baig

102 minutes