Review: Revolutionary Road
Based on Richard Yates’ classic American novel Revolutionary Road (1961), Sam Mendes’ film is as searing an indictment of American married life in the suburbs, as his first feature film the acidic and wonderful American Beauty. April (Kate Winslet) and Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio) consider themselves to be superior to their neighbours – they could be artists, intellectuals, bohemians – they just happen to be playing the part of an attractive young couple with two children living in the pretty house on Revolutionary Road, a Connecticut suburb, in the mid 1950s.
If you’ve read the book or seen a trailer, you’ll be forewarned that this is not a feelgood film… effectively it’s a claustrophobic two hours witnessing a marriage and the America dream dissolve, and despite good performances and beautiful cinematography there are times you’d wish Winslet and DiCaprio had gone down with the Titanic, rather than having to accompany them in their kitchen, bedroom or car as they relentlessly hurl abuse at each other. This discomfort and claustrophobia is all part of Mendes artistry, he is also a renowed theatre director – and there’s quite a theatrical feel throughout in the stucture and weighty lines:
April Wheeler: Tell me the truth Frank remember that? We used to live by it. And you know what’s so good about the truth? Everyone knows what it is however long they’ve lived without it. No one forgets the truth Frank they just get better at lying.
April aspires to an acting career, but instead has a tantrum following a cringe-worthy amateur drama performance in a local school hall. Frank’s not sure what he wants – he fell into a job at the same firm that his father anonymously toiled in for 20 years, and he bides his time bored at his desk or sleazily seducing young secretaries from the typing pool. So far the Wheelers are thoroughly unlikable – utterly absorbed in themselves and their marriage- and when they pause in the shrieking, they deliver earnest tracts about the nature of their relationship:
April Wheeler: I wanted IN. I just wanted us to live again. For years I thought we’ve shared this secret that we would be wonderful in the world. I don’t know exactly how, but just the possibility kept me hoping.
To this end, on Frank’s 30th birthday, April hatches a plans that the family move to Paris – she’ll work to support them while Frank figures out what he is meant to do with his life. Meanwhile their neighbour and realtor Helen Givings (Kathy Bates), who considers them the epitome of a perfect young couple, asks them to meet with her psychiatrically troubled son John (Michael Shannon – a performance well-deserving of his Oscar nomination, and he has all the best lines!) John is the true radical, honest and free of the social inhibitions to prevent him from commenting on the sham he sees before him:
John Givings: Hopeless emptiness. Now you’ve said it. Plenty of people are onto the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness
This ‘hopeless emptiness” of the suburbs and the empty conformist life is central to the film, and clearly the intent of the novel- radical for its time- as Richard Yates comments in a late interview :
I think I meant it more as an indictment of American life in the nineteen-fifties. Because during the Fifties there was a general lust for conformity all over this country, by no means only in the suburbs – a kind of blind, desperate clinging to safety and security at any price, as exemplified politically in the Eisenhower administration and the Joe McCarthy witch-hunts. Anyway, a great many Americans were deeply disturbed by all that – felt it to be an outright betrayal of our best and bravest revolutionary spirit – and that was the spirit I tried to embody in the character of April Wheeler. I meant the title to suggest that the revolutionary road of 1776 had come to something very much like a dead end in the Fifties.
This is where the film has come in for some criticism… In Mendes’ film, does April Wheeler encompass that revolutionary spirit? Is she a brave visionary - a feminist eschewing the conformity and vacuousness of being a mere ‘wife’, not unlike the character of Betty Draper in Mad Men or Laura Brown (Julianne Moore’s character) in The Hours? Or is she hysterical, vain and ultimately too selfish to be a mother? Clearly she is meant to be the former, but at times the part seems disappointing and underwritten.
Winslet is excellent as April - beautiful, tragic- embodying that ‘special’ quality that the Wheelers aspire to. Aside from her overcooked Golden Globe acceptance speeches, and -if they are true- some shockingly idiotic press quotes (like claiming she had to get drunk for a lesbian kiss in Jane Campion’s film Holy Smoke “I wasn’t drunk to the point of falling over, but it really helped me to find out what I needed to do for the scene.” Ahem, try acting Kate? Anyhow she should have had plenty of practice from her first film Heavenly Creatures!), she is an exemplary screen actor who picks interesting, challenging films and rarely hits a wrong note! She’s having a great year, between this and The Reader and is nominated for an Oscar for the latter- her sixth Academy Award nomination so maybe this year? Interesting Sam Mendes, also Winslet’s husband, claims he read the Revolutionary Road screenplay first because Kate wanted to play the part!
Leonardo DiCaprio is another matter entirely… maybe I just don’t like him? As an adult actor, his boyish features bore me and I find him petulant and irritating. I know with Frank Wheeler, Leo is intentionally mannered and false- as he’s playing a part of someone acting a role, if you’re with me!- but he’s just so dull! In fact the only guffaw I had in the entire film is that line which also appears in the trailer..
April: Frank Wheeler I think you may be the most interesting person I have ever met.
Much has been made in the press of the chemistry between the two leads, and every still released by the stuio seems to have them in an embrace – but in keeping with the novel, it is the distance between them which is most striking. From Yates’ perspective:
There’s a great deal of dialogue between them in the finished book, both when they’re affectionate and when they’re fighting, but there’s almost no communication.
I hope I haven’t put people off the film – it is a well-made, moving and intelligent questioning of 1950s consumerist, conformist values, that permeate society in so many ugly ways today. And there’s plenty of plot I haven’t touched on for fear of spoilers. As an aside, its two perfunctory sex scenes (approx 7 seconds each- cut to plaintive unfulfilled look from Kate) are as good a slur on hetrosexuality as the shrieking fights are on loveless marriages!
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