The Escape is an emotional exploration of a fractured marriage, but something much darker is at its core: depression and an existential crisis. Gemma Arterton is magnificent as Tara, the stay-at-home mother juggling never-ending laundry loads and repetitive breakfast routines for excitable children, whilst yearning for something more meaningful.
Tara seems to carry the weight of her world on her face, offering her family a mask of happiness: a layer of thinly veiled restraint. Beneath this though, she is deeply troubled, and her wretched pain threatens to shatter the family equilibrium. It’s a powerful performance by Arterton, complemented by an equally impressive Dominic Cooper, playing her in-denial husband Mark, who sees her purely as a wife and mother, not as a whole person. These two, it seems, have it all: the house, two cars, two kids, holding BBQs in their garden. Mark keeps insisting “We’ve got it so good, haven’t we?”, but this is a superficially happy suburban lifestyle: scratch below the surface and we see things are at breaking point, a deep chasm between them.
The Escape opens with Mark demanding sex from Tara and it’s clear she does not want to engage intimately. Instead of acknowledging that she is sexually and physically unresponsive, he continues on, forcing her to satisfy him whilst seemingly uncaring about her pleasure. There is no joy at all for her in their sex, and if he is aware of her silent tears, he pretends not to notice. It’s not just disarming watching him violate her and witness her discomfort: it’s troubling that he happily uses her and her motionless body as if she is a doll, solely there to pleasure him. All the while, she looks dead behind the eyes – a pointer towards her underlying emotional state.
Tara makes multiple attempts to tell Mark she’s upset and unhappy. Rather than trying to understand why she might be feeling that way, and helping her to open up, he guilt trips her about feeling depressed, and then asks her if she has met someone else. He doesn’t seem to be able to read her at all: he is completely blind to her pain. It’s no wonder then, that she looks elsewhere for help. But her mother Alison (Frances Barber), who was a single parent, makes it clear that Tara has more than she ever had and shouldn’t complain, so Tara is left to find answers elsewhere.
Finding temporary solace in the discovery of a book featuring the medieval The Lady and The Unicorn (six tapestries representing the five senses, plus love), the art inspires some optimism in Tara, and, spur of the moment, she boards a Eurostar train to Paris, on her own, to visit the gallery in which it hangs. There she meets Philippe (Jalil Lespert), and suddenly her whole demeanour changes. For the first time in an hour she smiles, and reveals that – when given the opportunity – she is clearly happy to pursue her own drives and desires. Of course, the life Tara has left behind with Mark and her children still exists, and she will have to deal with, but we share in her relief and well-earned joy, at least for now.
Tara’s helplessness, increasing desperation and desire to change her circumstances, makes for an uneasy watch, and writer-director Dominic Savage expertly builds the tension. There is an ever-present explosive threat of Tara’s frustration and rage, with no escape for her, or the viewer privy to her turmoil, and the combination of Savage’s empathic direction, Arterton’s nuanced performance, the gorgeous cinematography (Laurie Rose), and the moving score (Alexandra Harwood and Anthony John) write the troubled circumstances beautifully on Tara’s face.
With some subtle commentary on class, as well as gender politics, The Escape is an impressive portrayal of existential angst and the disintegration of self, and Arterton’s performance is breathtaking.
Zoe Margolis | @girlonetrack