Directed by: Dominic Savage
Cast: Dominic Cooper, Gemma Arterton, Frances Barber, Marthe Keller
“It’s just a phase.”
What happens when ennui gives way to something more annihilating? When the uninspiring daily routine crushes the sense of self? Writer-director Dominic Savage’s empathetic character study focuses on a young stay-at-home mum, Tara (Gemma Arterton), as she is consumed by a depression she’s made to feel guilty for having, to the point where escape is the only option.
To all appearances, Tara leads a fulfilling and desirable life. Her businessman husband, Mark (Dominic Cooper), lovingly provides for their family, allowing her to concentrate on raising their two primary-school-aged children and run the household. The family live in an amply sized house on an idyllic suburban estate. As Tara’s never-married mother (Francis Barber) resentfully points out, “You’ve got it made – two cars and a conservatory!” But the superficial abundance only serves to shame Tara for wanting more.
Gemma Arterton is magnificent in this painful portrait of a woman in search of a purpose of her own. To her husband, she is “babe”, the beautiful woman he married, who dutifully plays the role of homemaker while he proudly earns their livelihood. He likes a “quickie” on a morning, and for her to smile when he has a rare day off work. To her children, she is “mummy”, there to feed them, dress them, clean up their messes, wipe away their tears, taxi them to where they need to be, basically fulfil their every whim and want. Tara’s name goes completely unmentioned for the first hour of the film, a reflection of how she has lost herself in domesticity. Arterton gives a deeply emotional performance as the exhaustion and the desperation of Tara’s soporific existence is barely hidden by forced smiles and a wearily cheerful demeanour.
Dominic Cooper is equally impressive in the supporting role as Tara’s obtuse husband. Through the course of the film he goes through his own 5 stages of grief, as his perfect world crumbles around him. He’s baffled when she cries during sex. He obtrusively puts himself in Tara’s limited personal space in an attempt to get his “happy girl back”, not because he’s a bad person, but because he doesn’t know how else to act. He perceives her unhappiness as an indictment of his love for her, so suffocates her with it. His frustrations lead to angry outbursts (and one solemn, heart-breaking, tearful moment), which act as a catalyst to Tara’s drastic act of wish-fulfilment.
Laurie Rose’s camera is brutally intimate, clinging to Arterton’s face in claustrophobic lingering shots. The audience sees every break in the veneer with astonishing precision. The silent tears she weeps during sex, the wave of panic she feels facing another meaningless humdrum day, the abject disgust at herself for lashing out at her children. The colour palette of the first half of the film, set in London, is cool and grey; a stark juxtaposition to the warmth of the cinematography in Paris. The romantic city is filmed with a whimsical and wistful gaze, an uneasy what-could-have-been unfolding.
The events that follow Tara’s exodus will polarise opinions, but Savage’s view remains morally ambiguous. Never condemning Tara’s choice, but also not endorsing it, we are encouraged to merely understand it. The Escape is authentic, poignant, and intensely affecting.