Movie Review: Gemma discovers housewife ennui is still a thing in “The Escape”

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Even filmgoers too young to remember the ’70s are likely to find “The Escape” dated — almost quaint.

A well-acted, intimate drama about a housewife’s depression over the limited life she’s leading, it harks back to the Decade When Hollywood Discovered Feminism, aka The Golden Age of Jill Clayburgh.

Films such as “An Unmarried Woman” and “It’s My Turn” covered this ground in American cinema 40 years ago. So now it’s Britain’s turn?

Gemma Arterton is most famous internationally for being a “Bond Girl” in “Quantum of Solace.” But she once starred in a Brit updating of Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary,” the original housewife ennui tale, a film called “Gemma Bovery.” So she’s covering familiar ground as Tara, a suburban housewife whose horizons have shrunk with every year of her marriage to Mark (Dominic Cooper).

You can see it in the thousand yard stare she wears during perfunctory sex, in between the short bursts of enthusiasm she summons up to entertain their two pre-school age kids.

“I make myself care,” she admits, when pressed by her somewhat self-centered husband over “What’s wrong?”

To him, to her mother (Frances Barber), she “has it all.”

But the definition of that has changed over the decades. A two car, house in a London suburb lifestyle is not “having it all” in the “lean in” era, when woman are assured that yes, they can have fulfillment on levels Clayburgh’s characters could never dream of, back in the day.  Tara is dying of boredom, and Arterton, to her credit, makes this seem literal.

It’s not that she’s suicidal. But she’s checked out. A day trip to London, the chance purchase of a book about famous tapestries (“The Lady and the Unicorn”), that’s what gives her the spark of life, a little hope that there can be more to life than the drudgery of child-rearing and being around other women perfectly content with that.

Writer-director Dominic Savage and his stars go to some pains to not allow either  Tara or Mark to slip into caricature, and all concerned generally succeed at that.

Cooper’s Mark can be selfish, fretting over the ingrate his wife seems to be, doting on his kids when he gets home, not entirely selfish in bed all of the time. But Mark has a temper, and all his concern, “Let’s get this sorted,” and the like, seems coerced. He’s utterly at a loss in terms of suggestion solutions, or even agreeing to Tara’s self-cure idea (art classes).

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Arterton’s Tara comes closer to “A Woman Under the Influence” than “An Unmarried Woman,” if we’re referencing ’70s feminist mainstream cinema. Her mood swings are wide, her boredom with the “security” of this life soul-sapping.

“I never meet anyone. Ever. I’m not happy.”

Nothing’s more depressing than seeing the future and not seeing anything more than humdrum routine on your horizon. This isn’t a new feeling or a new phenomenon. Listen to “Try a Little Tenderness,” or the third act appearance of a sympathetic Older Woman Who Gets It (Marthe Keller) in “The Escape.”

Some cope with that by making vacations more adventurous. But being this close to London, and thus that close to Paris, Tara can almost see her salvation, a place where art and beauty and romance are paramount in life, where sensual and intellectual pleasures abide.

We know what’s coming, but Arterton and her director tease it out, almost endlessly, and find no fresh resolution for all this thought of “Escape.”

That makes this a sturdy melodrama, more enjoyable for its performances than from its aged, time-tested and formulaic plot.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, sex

Cast: Gemma Arterton, Dominic Cooper, Marhe Keller

Credits: Written and directed by Dominic Savage. An IFC release.

Running time: 1:41

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