Film Review: The Escape

Only a brave filmmaker—and even braver actors—would attempt to tackle one of the most vexing questions of contemporary life: Why is “having it all” not quite enough?
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The protagonist in The Escape is female, and her problem is perhaps more common to women than to men, but it’s a problem faced by anyone in today’s abundant world who apparently “has it all.” Somewhere along the way, it may seem they’re missing something. Maybe they lie awake at night, staring into the darkness and wondering: Is this all there is?

Tara (Gemma Arterton) doesn’t use those words, but in the first half of The Escape, the question is writ clearly in her eyes and her demeanor as she goes about her daily life. Tara (whose name isn’t uttered for much of the film) is a stay-at-home mom who seems fortunate indeed: She’s young and beautiful, married to a handsome and successful man and they have two children, a boy and girl, two cars and a large, comfortable house in the suburbs of London. But her life has been reduced to a mind-numbing routine: Most mornings she makes love to her husband, Mark (Dominic Cooper), fixes breakfast for him and the kids, takes the kids to school and daycare, returns home to clean and do laundry until it’s time to pick up the kids and come home again to start dinner.

All of this is seen in intimate, almost wordless detail, and the viewer begins to understand why Tara is feeling suffocated and, yes, unfulfilled. One day she discovers an art book about a set of ancient tapestries hanging in Paris and she comes alive— intrigued not only by the spiritual message in the tapestries (that we all have a “sixth sense”) but also by art itself, and the possibility she could create it. Tara tries to explain to her husband that she’d like to take an art course, but he offhandedly dismisses the idea. Soon after, Tara truly begins to lose it—seriously jeopardizing her marriage and even the welfare of her children.

On one level, The Escape is a powerful cinematic portrait of a broken marriage, and how both parties contribute to breaking it. Cooper is perfect as Mark, the entitled alpha male who has done everything he’s supposed to do and cannot understand why his wife can’t be as happy doing the same. Like many men, Mark is totally clueless when it comes to comprehending the female psyche. When Tara begins to withdraw from him, for instance, his first question is: “Have you met someone?” And even though he becomes extremely frustrated, Mark finds it impossible to fully empathize with what his wife is going through.

As good as Cooper is, The Escape is definitely Gemma Arterton’s movie. This young British actress has never had such a challenging role, and she more than meets that challenge—for every bone in her body, every muscle in her face reacts to Tara’s confusion and pain. When she finally seeks some much-needed escape—well, lucky for her, a train station is nearby, and it happens to be the station where she can catch the train to Paris. On arriving in the City of Light, Tara’s mood lightens, and as she goes in search of the ancient tapestries that so inspired her, she becomes, well, almost a girl again.

What happens to Tara in Paris may be predictable, but her reaction to it—and the plot’s conclusion—are not. In fact, very little about The Escape is predictable—starting with the fact it was written and directed by a young man, Dominic Savage, who has worked mostly in British television. Savage obviously does understand the female psyche, and his thoughtful film could find an eager audience among those American women who are perhaps thinking about escape—if only Paris were a simple train ride away.

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