Dir: Dominic Savage. Cast: Gemma Arterton, Dominic Cooper, Jalil Lespert, Frances Barber, Marthe Keller. 15 cert, 101 mins
The most unusual thing about The Escape is that it isn’t in French. It’s easy to imagine this tale of a depressed housewife, who runs amok from middle-class imprisonment to make a bid for sexual independence in Paris, as a minor vehicle for Kristin Scott Thomas a few years ago, or perhaps Emmanuelle Béart, whose freckled beauty this film’s actual star, Gemma Arterton, approximates.
Chamber pieces about marital unhappiness and the ennui of motherhood feel more typically a Francophone preserve – while Arterton, in her time, has even played a variation on literature’s most famous desperate housewife, in Anne Fontaine’s 2014 comedy-drama Gemma Bovery.
Watching her as Tara, a harassed mother of two on a Kent housing estate, is a very different proposition. While her husband Mark (Dominic Cooper) suits up for a day’s office work, she runs the kids to school, does the shopping and laundry, and gazes forlornly at the identical rituals of other mums across the supermarket car park.
Something is not right – perhaps it never has been, in the years since she gave birth. Her husband clambers on her for morning sex, which she endures more than enjoying. And the children, played by real-life siblings, scream and squabble, spill things, and turn her face into a twitching mask of stress and dissatisfaction, hour by hour.
If the domestic routine here feels impressively believable, credit the improvised working methods of writer-director Dominic Savage (Love + Hate), who allows this couple to speak to each other without truly talking. It’s quite clear they’ve run out of things to discuss, other than what’s in the fridge, or who’s lacking drinks at a passive-aggressive weekend BBQ. An attempted date at an upscale restaurant is all empty gestures, conversational dead air, and Tara trying to explain to Mark what butternut squash is.
The sex scenes, without being at all graphic, are gruntingly frank: one ends with Arterton surreptitiously weeping, one hand tensed and poking out like a frozen starfish behind Cooper’s back. Mark is ordinary, oblivious, and has a temper, which flares up in moments that veer towards abuse, but usually checks itself before getting that far.
Like most people in the throes of mental illness, Tara has trouble finding a way out of it. Admitting her unhappiness to Mark, and to her mother (a pragmatic Frances Barber) is a start. She wants to enrol in art school, to give her creativity an outlet; Mark baulks at the cost. And so, in despair, she makes a run for it, booking a one-way ticket on the Eurostar, and switching off her phone. In a moment, the smiling family snapshot has dimmed, and a dull black mirror reflects her guilty face back.
The Paris scenes are the film’s weakest, perhaps partly because they’re its briefest. Like Tara, this script has the urge to bail on its opening set-up, but doesn’t know what to do once it’s overboard. She meets a stranger (Jalil Lespert) while looking at tapestries, and they lie to each other about their attachments, and have sex. And that’s about it, barring a single scene for the Swiss actress Marthe Keller as a good Samaritan.
Having established Tara’s gloom so well as a dramatic problem, Savage has only cosmetic, half-hearted solutions to offer her. Even if there’s meant to be no easy fix, this isn’t a hugely profound point to make. And some visual ideas are too pleased with themselves, like Tara sitting on a child’s swing while the camera lingers on the chains above her (chained!) and the scattered lego bricks across their carpet (broken home!) when she walks out. There’s a tiresomely repetitive piano score, too, which it’s hard to believe two people are credited with composing.
For all The Escape’s weaknesses, it’s held together with real sinew by Arterton, who lives and breathes the stifling air of Tara’s habitat without needing to act up a storm at any point. Her performance justifies the whole project, with a sure hand from the director coaxing her through it. After this audition tape, she can move on to whichever Anna Kareninas or Hedda Gablers she damn well pleases.