Since the days of Stella Dallas and Mildred Pierce, filmmakers have sought to explore the dichotomy of being a woman and a mother. Freedom and marriage are two terms that aren’t mutually exclusive, and an entire genre of features exists that revolve around “domestic dramas.” Director and screenwriter Dominic Savage’s The Escape doesn’t reinvent the wheel with his story of a woman on the edge. What he does is give a platform for an emotionally stacked performance from leading lady Gemma Arterton, who continues to prove herself as an actress constantly underestimated by the masses.
The Escape’s basic setup consists of the basics: mother of two Tara (Arterton) is in the midst of a crippling depression. Her daily routine consists of having unloving sex with her husband Mark (Dominic Cooper) in the morning before corraling her rowdy children and taking them to school. After that she cleans house, counting down the minutes till she has to pick up the children and await Mark’s arrival. When Mark and Tara do talk, whether about his day or her unhappiness, it’s evident both can’t comprehend what the other is saying to be of any help. They’re two people just existing.
Much of what informs the audiences’ awareness of Tara’s sadness is watching the repetition of her routine. As things become increasingly mundane the camera never shies away from focusing on Arterton’s face. Tara is a woman barely clinging to her sanity. What Arterton does so well is give the audiences’ glimpses into her mental state. She grips her face, wiping her eyes to hide the tears. At times she’ll smile in a way that’s as genuine as she can muster. Mark constantly nags her, both politely and less so, while all the way begging her not to cry. Cooper tries to play Mark as sympathetic as possible. The character has moments of explosive temper – calling Tara a “silly cow” after she spills juice – but constantly wants to know what he can do to help. In a way, he wants to fix things to have everything back to normal, but also understands he’s beating his head against a stone wall. The two attempt to have dinner together with Mark reiterating to his wife how amazing she is, yet getting nothing in return.
Savage’s script doesn’t shy away from showing the multiple faces of depression, particularly the way it plays on women who seemingly have the free time to do what they want. Tara’s mother callously tells her not to rock the boat with Mark considering she’s financially dependent on him, which could open the door to a stereotypical depiction of a woman’s entitlement. Instead we watch Tara struggle to find out what she wants. She knows she’s unhappy, she knows she needs to get out and do something, but she doesn’t know what. The few times Tara comes alive is when reading about a French tapestry called The Lady and the Unicorn. Tara doesn’t understand the attraction, but gazing at the art finally allows her a moment to breathe.
With Tara and Mark’s relationship growing increasingly volatile the film has to find some way for Tara to break out. A spur-of-the-moment trip to Paris opens the door for Tara to find herself, and it is where the story becomes the most formulaic. She meets a handsome stranger before being told the “moral” of the story. The narrative can’t sustain itself with a single location, but Tara’s trip just falls into too many of the typical “woman thou art loosed” stories we’ve seen, especially when it does compel her to give things another shot. Thankfully the ship is right by the end, leaving things not solved, but at least working towards something passing for a resolution.
The Escape puts the burden on its lead and thankfully Gemma Arterton is more than capable of pulling it off. Tara is a character who, at times, comes off as unsympathetic yet Arterton reminds the audience of how conflicted she is. The script also is incredibly nuanced in its presentation of depression, giving us a heroine who desperately tries to fix herself but can only stave off internally dying for so long.