A woman is unhappy with her marriage and her children and so becomes depressed and dreams of escape.
If you are familiar with the plot of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856), then maybe you will indeed know this story.
And of course Gemma Arterton, who is the star of The Escape, played a modern-day version (of sorts) of Emma Bovary in Anne Fontaine’s Gemma Bovery (France/UK, 2014), in which Martin (Fabrice Luchini) tries to project on to Gemma the story of Emma after she and her husband (Jason Flemyng) have moved from England to live in the French countryside, where Martin works as a baker (having quit the city life some time before).
So perhaps it comes as no surprise that here Tara (Arterton) lives in an unhappy marriage with Mark (Dominic Cooper) and their two annoying kids somewhere in Kent.
Mark clearly has a decent job, even if we never find out what he does, since the house that they inhabit on their close is pretty big and they have two cars. In other words, Tara is not unhappy because of a lack of material wealth.
Mark, meanwhile, is not without his flaws. He veers between being an ignorant oik who has no interest in art and boring things like that, and actually being quite a sensitive man who wants to make an effort to understand and to improve the lot of his clearly unhappy wife…
However, for whatever reason, he does not quite have the emotional or intellectual intelligence properly to help Tara, as can be signalled by his lack of care for her pleasure when having sex and in the way that he does not let her rest at a barbecue and/or passively-aggressively complains about her not having his dinner ready.
Since Mark is, to put it bluntly, inarticulate (or what we might call ‘a bit thick’), he gets angry when he cannot help Tara, and so he lashes out. Not that he hits her, but he swears at her and puts her down, calling her stupid and deriding her artistic ambitions.
For, Tara is depressed by her repetitive life of getting the kids breakfast, taking them to school, picking them up, being treated like a shag object by Mark and so on. And she clearly dreams of doing something more creative with her time – as signalled by her aspiration to sign up for an art course after taking a day trip up to London, and as signalled by the first part of her ‘escape,’ which involves going to Paris to see tapestries that she also has read about in a book she buys on London’s South Bank.
As a study of depression, The Escape involves some very strong performances – especially from Arterton (although I shall return later to issues of accent – both in relation to her and in relation to Dominic Cooper).
However, The Escape is also not quite a study of depression, be it post-natal or otherwise. For depression does not necessarily go away if one happens to escape one’s milieu; being a psychological disorder, it is something that can follow one around and affect even the most privileged person.
In The Escape, though, the film ends with Tara having moved from Kent to London, where she lives in a massive apartment right next to a square that does not look dissimilar to somewhere like Eaton Square Gardens by Sloane Square.
She walks into the square’s gardens and turns to look at some children playing – whom we hear but do not see. It is hard to tell what Tara is thinking and feeling, but Arterton comes close to tears (there is a lot of crying in this film), suggesting that in part she misses her kids (whom, we infer, she has left with Mark).
But at the same time, the film would seem to end on a positive note: Tara has left behind her shitty working class life in Kent and now is more fulfilled, and more in her skin, living in posh ends in London. She may still get sad, but it would seem that she is no longer depressed. Meaning that The Escape is basically a fantasy of becoming (upper) middle class: when you get to live in a ridiculously large apartment in somewhere like Sloane Square, having got rid of your chavvy husband and your screaming brat chav kids, then depression melts away and you are fine.
Note that I explicitly do not want to say anything along the lines of Tara being a terrible mother for abandoning her children. I do not want to make this a critique of her character based upon some predetermined biological role that she as a female is supposed to play.
No – I am happy to take it on face value that Tara is happier without her children, and that this might indeed be the case for many people, even if The Escape would look odd when placed alongside Tully (Jason Reitman, USA, 2018), where post-natal depression gets paradoxically a much more realistic treatment, since the kids there are not depicted as such an unremitting nightmare, but are characters that can do more than just scream (but perhaps this is because they are not ill-educated chavs).
Rather, I am more concerned with how The Escape paints estuary England with such total bleakness that it is hard not to see the film ultimately as a work of complete snobbery, even if it has claims to realism.
Don’t get me wrong. I sometimes wonder how the eloquent and erudite Owen Jones (the author of Chavs) would survive if he had to spend all of his days with Mail-reading Kent and Essex boys rather than with The Guardian and Celebrity Pointless lot that are his contemporary crowd.
That is, there is an element of British society in which a kind of unconscious anti-establishment attitude emerges through wilful ignorance – even if this plays directly into the hands of the ruling classes (problematically to generalise: schools are designed deliberately to discipline working class society members, who then are betrayed by schools that do not help them and/or who betray their class by doing well at school, and who must then choose not to do well at school and/or to ditch school in an act of rebellious ignorance that then consigns them to the working class for the rest of their days, which imprisonment they will fiercely defend, hence a tendency for conservative thinking to flourish in working class areas).
By which I mean that I can sympathise with Tara wanting to do something else with her life other than knock out more kids and begin to drink gin and smoke fags in her close until she withers away.
But The Escape as a film also specifically wants us to share Tara’s desire for escape, and in this it must present to us a relatively specific vision of working class Kent life. Or rather: lower middle class Kent life, which may involve certain material trappings (nice house, two cars, coffee from a cafetières at breakfast, orange juice decanted into a jug – ‘lower’ middle class/’working class’ is not really defined here by money), but which nonetheless lacks any sensitivity or sensibility towards thought and/or art (class defined here by cultural capital, and in particular how one spends not so much one’s money, but one’s time). A life that lacks, if you will, the humanities, and thus, as the film might at times want to have us believe, (a certain type of ‘refined’) humanity.
And in performing this trick, the film becomes (for this viewer) problematic. Since surely there is so much humanity in estuary England that it need not be a world that one can only escape by moving to Paris and/or Sloane Square – as if becoming posh were the only true solution to the class problem in the UK.
Where Flaubert – in his typically misanthropic and misogynistic fashion – makes Emma suffer (and die) for her imprisonment and her aspirations (even if she is married to a dullard doctor rather than a besuited barrow boy), Tara escapes. Not that she should be deprived of any class mobility (for to suggest that we all must know and remain in our place would betray a different kind of conservatism). But her escape involves leaving chav life behind.
The Arterton star persona here becomes important. For, it is as if her physical beauty (as well as her bosom, which Savage allows to play a prominent part in many scenes, even if always covered) is being used here as a tool to help convey that Tara is better than and does not deserve this life. That is, beauty cannot survive in and does not belong to the Garden of England, but a cinematic central London Garden of Eden.
Arterton is loosely associated with Cinderella-type roles. Tamara Drewe (Stephen Frears, UK, 2010), for example, is about the transformation of Arterton from ugly duckling to beautiful swan, while Gemma Bovery also sees Martin project on to her the narrative of social climbing that Flaubert so mercilessly mocks.
That said, Arterton broke through playing a kind of troublesome private school girl in St Trinian’s (Oliver Parker and Barnaby Thompson, UK, 2007), meaning that her star persona sits somewhere uneasily between different class strata – something that also holds for Dominic Cooper, whose breakthrough role was as Dakin in The History Boys (Nicholas Hytner, UK, 2006) – in which his character wins a scholarship to Oxbridge as a result of his academic excellence.
In other words, both actors sort of connote upward mobility – which means that their very chavviness here rings somewhat false. That is, their Estuary English accents seem just a bit forced at times (to this viewer), suggesting that the film involves actors performing downwards in a film that is about a fantasy of moving upwards. While Arterton grew up in Kent and is from a relatively working class family, thereby meaning that she surely has claims to giving an authentic performance, the same performance could have been given without the forced accents. With the forced accents, the film again comes across as slightly disingenuous, condescending even – regardless of whether the emotional range of the performance(s) on offer is superb (which it is).
But more than this. What is equally interesting about The Escape is its formal features.
About halfway through the film, Tara has a conversation with her mother (Frances Barber), who explains that her life is not like a television show.
And yet, in its very domesticity, The Escape is not wholly dissimilar to British soap operas, even if it uses various stylistic features that we typically do not associate with the smaller format (slow motion shots, variable focus, extreme close ups, musical accompaniment, relatively abstract shots of the sun setting and so on).
In this way, The Escape would seem in some senses to be about the escape from television and into cinema – as if these very media were themselves representative of different classes.
It is perhaps no coincidence, then, that Tara heads to the South Bank in order to get a sense of what life might be like outside of the close. For it is on the South Bank that Mark (Michael Maloney) will hop – somewhat embarrassingly – alongside Nina (Juliet Stevenson) in Truly Madly Deeply (Anthony Minghella, UK, 1990). And it is on the South Bank that Charles (Hugh Grant) will talk to his brother David (David Bower) about love in Four Weddings and a Funeral (Mike Newell, UK, 1994). It also is on the South Bank that Alex (Alex Chevasco) will meet Patricia (Hannah Croft) in En Attendant Godard (William Brown, UK, 2009).
There are more examples, but these three will alone suffice to demonstrate that the South Bank is a middle class space that is in some respects associated with cinema – and certainly not with television. Indeed, the stall where Tara buys her book, on the cover of which is The Lady and the Unicorn tapestry from the Musée national du moyen âge in Paris, is right next door to the British Film Institute.
Gemma Arterton must be saved from television and upheld as truly cinematic. Tara, too, must be cinematic. And Tara, too, must therefore not just practice art, but also become art – which is what happens when Tara ditches Kent for Paris and meets Philippe (Jalil Lespert) at precisely the Musée national du moyen âge – after he spots her on the Boulevard St Michel.
(Is Tara suddenly finding herself inside Peter Sarstedt’s ‘Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)?’ – even if that song is a critique of the emptiness of living in a fancy apartment in Paris and hanging out with Sacha Distel?)
For, Philippe is a photographer who cannot but take photos of Tara in front of The Lady and the Unicorn tapestry – because she is to beautiful. Inevitably they sleep together, then, with Tara calling herself Sam (her real self, rather than the fake woman who leads a fake life in Kent?).
(Jalil Lespert is an actor associated with upward mobility, too, owing to his role in Ressources humaines/Human Resources, Laurent Cantet, France/UK, 1999, where he plays a university graduate who must sack his own father and the rest of his workforce from the factory in which they have for many years worked – all in the name of economic rationalisation.)
And yet, this view of Paris is highly romanticised, as is clear from the homeless people that Tara passes and the beer can that nestles on a Gare du Nord cornice as she exits the station. Tara seems not to notice these ‘trash’ details, but instead falls immediately in love with the City of Lights for what it means: escape from dull and grey England.
Cinema is upheld as better than television – and Tara manages to make her life cinematic by leaving behind all that she knows in Kent. This is a far cry from that other relationship between a man and a woman who has artistic aspirations and who seeks to escape an unhappy marriage – and which is perhaps one of television’s finest achievements, namely the relationship between Tim (Martin Freeman) and Dawn (Lucy Davis) in The Office (Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, UK, 2001-2003).
In sum, then, The Escape involves a wonderful central performance from Arterton, with Cooper also being as strong as in anything else in which he features and which I have seen (the film is sympathetic to him as he cries after feeling out of place in a posh London restaurant; but he is also unredeemable, suggesting a sort of hopelessness about his character).
However, the film also would have us believe that the chav classes of the UK are a hellhole from which one must escape – televisual and bleak as opposed to beautiful and cinematic, associated with relentless interiors and small gardens as opposed to clear skies and open space.
Arguably the film stages the way in which public space is not public, but really middle class – with Tara wanting to gain access to these spaces. But she does so by leaving her Kent home behind. A study in depression that is sympathetic both to Tara and to Mark, the film nonetheless posits that the cure for all of this is to escape. And that Brexit Britain is a small-minded and awful place, with a ‘European’ sensibility being the only one that can save us. (Don’t get me wrong – I am strongly anti-Brexit; but how The Escape is quite one-sided just means that it is not the film to give pro-European views the most fair account.)