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Revolutionary Road (2008) February 16, 2009

Posted by gproject in : Cinema, Recently Viewed , trackback

Directed by: Sam Mendes

Revolutionary Road marks a homecoming of sorts for Oscar winning director Sam Mendes, who returns to the world of suburban disharmony and marital imbalance with which he made his name.  The film offers plenty of comparisons to his 1999 drama American Beauty, but comes served minus the black wit and modern setting of its predecessor.  Whether or not this mid-fifties take on matrimonial mistrust really adds anything new to the argument is debatable, yet it reveals itself in such a way so as to be infinitely engaging.

Set in 1955, the story introduces us to Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio & Kate Winslet), a married couple living a life that, on the outside, appears perfect.  But behind their picket fence on Revolutionary Road lies a wealth of suppressed emotions.  Frank hates his job, while April’s failed attempts at acting find her hanging around the house all day.  Desperate to break free of their mundane existence, the pair make plans to start a more bohemian life in Paris, where both parties can discover their true purpose.  But as the move draws nearer, it seems that fate is determined to split the cracks in their already fractured relationship.  After seven years of marriage, Frank’s dormant feelings make an explosive rise to the surface, causing April to take matters into her own hands.

True to its word, Revolutionary Road can be a rather bleak and dour movie at times and one which, despite its numerous highs, always finds a way back to sadness.  It is also quite clearly intent on dissecting its central couple, and the pressures put upon them by each other and their well-meaning friends.  And yet, just when it looks set to finish on this point alone, there’s a final scene which suggests that maybe the film is about more than just Frank and April, and is actually pointing out the difficulty of managing a relationship’s inherent harmonic disparities.  Which, really, is a statement that exemplifies this film – a series of constant tonal shifts which reveal a fated couple at their best and their worst.

Writer Justin Haythe adapts the novel by Richard Yates, turning it into a ruthless piece of drama that isn’t afraid to pack its 120-minute running time with emotive outbursts.  One consequence of the strict 1950’s setting means the script often sounds ripped from the stage, complete with its orderly arguments and hat-tipping pleasantries.  The book may well make an excellent play; with limited locations and a small character list, there’s no reason it wouldn’t.  But it’s also important to realise that only the casting of such a character-oriented piece could truly make or break any production of it.  Revolutionary Road is very much an actor’s film, with its long, drawn out sequences of dialogue and powerful scenes set at both ends of the emotional spectrum.  Luckily, that poses no problem for the cast here.

Kate Winslet may be garnering the awards attention for the double-whammy effect of this film and her post-WWII drama The Reader, however, her strong-willed and expertly played character is easily matched, if not bettered, by Leonardo DiCaprio.  His turn as the confused husband is wonderfully pitched throughout, from his uncomfortable silences right through to his blood vessel bursting moments of rage.  Some may say that the acting is just that: “Acting!” – in the pompous and slightly self-important sense.  But so light on anything but the central relationship as the script is, maybe some “acting” is exactly what’s required here – that necessity to shake the back rows out from their waning interest.  To their credit, Winslet and DiCaprio never back down from the challenge, or each other, turning a rather basic set-up into something entirely engrossing.

Also making a big impression but with rather less screen-time is Michael Shannon, playing the mentally unstable son of the Wheeler’s friendly real-estate agent.  His character is one of those natural standouts – an opinionated and rather brash force of nature.  But what Shannon adds is a touch of the former intelligence we are told he possessed, making the character more sympathetic, yet still defiantly correct about the hypocrisy he loves to highlight.  Plus there’s Kathy Bates playing his mother, the cheery woman who has so much faith in the strength of the Wheeler’s relationship.  It’s a point made by the film on a few occasions, but only Bates’ character really embodies the way people naively assume they understand others.

It would also be remiss not to mention acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose visuals are a step removed from the wide open vistas he recently shot for No Country for Old Men [review] and The Assassination of Jesse James.  This film is much simpler, with plenty of mid-shots and a fondness for the slow push-in, usually to emphasise a particular piece of dialogue or moment.  All the same, Deakins knows how to work with space, and he finds plenty of it surrounding his characters, especially during their most awkward scenes.  The airy atmosphere fits neatly with the sense of stillness, just waiting to be punctuated by fits of manic rage.

Revolutionary Road is a surprisingly effective piece of drama.  In the strongest moments, it really draws you into its world, enveloping the audience in a story of love, hate, desires and betrayal.  Despite all the ups and downs, the feeling of anticipation for what is coming next seems ever-present, which is quite an accomplishment in a film that could simplistically be boiled down to ‘two hours of arguments’.  Sam Mendes has indeed found his niche, and that niche appears to be human dissatisfaction.  Although how he finds any time to relate to it, given his current award-courting life situation, is anybody’s guess.

Revolutionary Road is currently on UK general release.

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