Mediocre, dutiful sex rarely gets much screen time in the cinema yet it’s prevalent in so many real relationships. Gemma Arterton’s new film, The Escape, is a portrait of a marriage that explores silent endurance, as she plays a housewife gently suffocating in suburbia.
The film opens with Mark (Dominic Cooper) and Tara (Arterton) waking up. He’s keen for an early morning quickie, before his work and her taking the kids to school, so he grabs her from behind, beneath the sheets. We see his ecstasy – and her secret agony, as tears well up and are brushed away.
All is not well in this cul-de-sac in Gravesend, Kent, 32-year-old Arterton’s home town and the setting for the film, much of which was improvised by the actors, with a minimal script. Arterton says: “There is no actual connection between them when they’re making love. It’s just him going at it, so I think it was quite shocking for Dominic when he actually saw the film because he saw my perspective and I saw his.”
Dominic Savage, who directed the film, encouraged Arterton and Cooper to experiment in take after take, and the result is disturbingly real. What’s unsaid is hugely powerful, too – Arterton’s face is as expressive as that of a silent-movie actress.
She feels The Escape is particularly timely, given the issues of consent that were raised by the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. “Bedroom scenes like that are difficult to watch, but really significant. We’re told that we can say no when it’s being forced upon us in a violent way, but when it’s in a marriage or a relationship, it’s complicated. It’s important to say, ‘you don’t have to feel obliged, you don’t have to do this, you could say no’.
Arterton has come a long way since her early appearances in the St Trinian’s movies, in Disney’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and as Bond woman Strawberry Fields opposite Daniel Craig in Quantum of Solace. Increasingly, she’s been drawn to roles featuring pioneering women: as a wartime scriptwriter in Their Finest and the lead in the West End run of the musical Made in Dagenham, where she played a union leader singing out for equal pay. In the autumn, she plays Vita Sackville-West in Vita And Virginia, which chronicles Sackville-West’s relationship with Virginia Woolf.
In many ways, all Tara needs is “a room of her own”, Woolf’s prescription for creative womanhood, but no one hears her cry for help. What’s interesting about The Escape is that Mark is not some beast of a man – he’s a good dad and attempts to talk to Tara about her unhappiness. But, for Tara, a lovely suburban home, two cars and two kids are not enough. Her own creative and artistic needs wither away as she is infantilised, looking after infants. Not everyone finds motherhood an all-consuming joy, and her young kids are prone to tantrums. Soon, the Eurostar terminal in Ebbsfleet, Kent, beckons, with Paris at the end of the tunnel.
“There’s something about where I’m from in Gravesend, where blokes don’t talk about their emotions. It’s a little bit like it’s 20 years behind in an odd way. It’s so close to London but it’s much more traditional, a family and class thing.” Indeed, part of the film was shot in Arterton’s mother’s house. “There’s something quite buttoned up about that British sensibility, about not wanting to show weakness.”
In Quantum of Solace Bond asks my character up to a hotel room, and she sleeps with him and dies. Sort of interesting, obviously, with all the Harvey Weinstein stuff
Arterton is a child of divorce, and break-ups were the norm in her extended family. Her own marriage ended in 2012, and she is happily in a new relationship. But, during filming last year, both Cooper and Arterton drew on their own experiences. The two actors are friends and worked together on Tamara Drewe, so Arterton felt comfortable with the risks. “Dominic was also similar to me going through a period in his life, saying what do I want out of a relationship? Do I want to get married? Do I want to have children? Do I want that typical family life? We were both exploring that in this film.”
When not on set, Arterton still works non-stop. She is one of the public faces of the UK Time’s Up movement, and her company, Rebel Park Productions, made Leading Lady Parts, a comedy short about discrimination in the workplace that stars Felicity Jones, Gemma Chan and Catherine Tate, and came out on the BBC last week. (July 30) “I love the prep, and I love the development, and getting people together, and matching up writers to subject matter.”
Her own writing includes the essay Woke Bond Woman, which comes out in October in the collection for girls, Feminists Don’t Wear Pink (and other lies), which includes contributions from Saoirse Ronan and Keira Knightley. “I wasn’t allowed to call it Woke Bond Girl as that’s patented. But I wondered what would happen to my character in the post-#MeToo world. In Quantum of Solace Bond asks my character up to a hotel room, and she sleeps with him and dies. Sort of interesting, obviously, with all the Harvey Weinstein stuff,” Arterton pauses, then grins. “So, I made her empowered, and she ends up not dying an iconic death.” Be afraid, Mr Bond. Be very afraid.
The Escape is out 3 August