Even the most casual of viewers might wonder why Keira Knightley would have chosen to play the relatively normal romantic love interest in a movie where she could have also played the vampy nutter instead. Turns out, she was originally offered the latter in John Maybury’s partly schizo, partly intriguing, ultimately ho-hum period soaper chronicling poet Dylan Thomas (Matthew Rhys, eerily looking like Geoffrey Rush from his Shine days) and the two babes who stuck by his side during WWII. There’s his volatile, beautiful wife Caitlin (Sienna Miller) and his childhood first love Vera (Knightley), both vying for his attention and, quite literally, his bed, and when the wife seems to be winning, Vera finds herself drawn to a sweetly lumbering soldier (the increasingly wan Cillian Murphy), who eventually gets called off to war, leaving Vera to sort through eventual motherhood and her newfound husband’s post-battle trauma, causing a rift in her lusty bond with the Thomases.
With its splashy, candy-colored opening, with Knightley’s sprightly lounge singer in extreme close-up (she even did her own crooning here), you’re half-expecting a Peter Greenaway film, with its gauzy noir trappings and self-awareness in capturing a certain cockeyed period mood. And Knightley and Miller, even though the reversal of their roles might have been even more auspicious, bite down into them (Miller may be the sexiest woman to ever bash a man’s head against the floor in screen history). It’s awfully telling that they have more sexual heat with each other than with their male counterparts, what with Rhys’s weakly sketched Thomas and Murphy not exactly filling out the dutiful soldier role (somewhat literally, his ultra-lean physique and moon-faced boyishness still makes him seem on the cusp of legal drinking age in the U.K.). The film is on solid ground when it sticks to the women and their half-adoring, half-vicious relationship to each other; far less so when it eventually becomes yet another wartime domestic tale, with Maybury’s semi-kicky style draining out slowly until mediocrity settles in.