Revolutionary Road

Titanic’s doomed lovers Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet reunite as unhappily married couple in 1950s America in Sam Mendes' Revolutionary Road, adapted by screenwriter Justin Haythe from Richard Yates’ terse novel about a relationship that crumbles under the weight of arguments, jealousies and recriminations.

DiCaprio plays Frank Wheeler, an unfulfilled sales man for an adding-machine company in Manhattan, spending his days stuck behind a desk in a cubicle. He is married to Winslet’s April, the mother of his two young girls, who has given up her dreams of an acting career and settled down in deepest suburbia to keep house and raise the kids. Although they appear to be living the dream of 1955 American life, they are deeply unhappy, with their lot in life and, more pertinently, with each other.

The first hint of irony in the story arises from simple fact that this couple are young and beautiful. In the booming post-war America, they have been fed the lie that whatever they desire in life can be made real. They have been raised in optimism; both husband and wife sharing the belief that they are destined to lead remarkable lives. The truth is, they are resolutely ordinary and it is killing them. Then the increasingly despondent April comes up with a life-changing plan. They will sell their home and move to Paris, where she will find a job as a bi-lingual secretary and Frank can take the time to “find himself”. From the first moment the idea is mooted, it seems like a scatterbrained scheme, but they hang onto it for dear life. The alternative, the same old daily grind, drinks with the neighbours, the cramped commute to the city, squeezing oranges for breakfast, is unthinkable.

As a portrait of a bad match and the suffocating nature of ordinary life, Revolutionary Road is astringent and determinedly wretched. And that, in part, is the problem. We see these people at their worst but we rarely see the good in them that gives the constant bickering and recrimination it’s tragic poignancy. There is angst, as much as any one film can contain, but none of the contrasting joy that would cause the pain to bite. In the film's most effective scenes, local estate agent Mrs Givings (Kathy Bates) visits the Wheelers with her long-suffering husband (Richard Easton) and their son John (Michael Shannon). Once a promising mathematician, John has suffered a debilitating mental breakdown that has robbed him of his talent with numbers and blunted his social graces. While the rest of the characters sit around pretending to be happy, John tells them what he really thinks, acting as a blistering one-man Greek Chorus in stripping away the artifices and delusions to get to the nub of truth. By the time he has finished, their dreams lie in tatters on the shag pile carpet.

In his four films to date, director Sam Mendes (Winslet’s real-life husband) has struggled to tell a story that connects with any significant emotional authority. Frank and April may be well played but as characters, they remain cramped bundles of indicators; beautifully photographed, perfectly costumed and placed in evocative settings but lacking the spark that would give them life. Having already catalogued the same suburban dissatisfaction in his black comedy American Beauty, it is even more disappointing that the director’s second journey along the same route is only occasionally inspired.

Revolutionary Road is a dispassionate film, detached and unfeeling. Rather than show us the death throes of the American dream, Mendes presents us with the autopsy report, having already buried the victims. His first scene brings us to a lively be-bop dance party, where the elegant April makes heavy-lidded eyes at the dashing Frank. The very next scene drags us forward in time to a violent argument on the side of a road where she cowers before his clenched fist. From that point on, the remainder of the story is a foregone conclusion, hermetically sealed. It is still worth looking at, but the experience is little more than remote observation. Like a photograph of a diamond, the sparkle is there, but you cannot feel the weight.

1 comment:

rob said...

Great review. One of your best!