Feb 1, 2009

Revolutionary Road [15]

Dir: Sam Mendes
The Academy Awards are truly bizarre. Their weird voting system, their almost total lack of acknowledgment of movies released before November, the politics and maneuvering behind each nod, but the weirdest thing about the Oscars, at least based on watching Kate Winslet’s two most recent films, for both of which she was tipped for a nomination, is their taste. To nominate Winslet for her solid work in The Reader would have been fine any other year, but in the same year that her astonishing performance in this film is eligible? That’s just odd.

Revolutionary Road is based on a 1961 novel by Richard Yates about Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Winslet), a young couple whose life and marriage, outwardly, looks perfect, but both of whom had bigger dreams, dreams now being crushed by suburbia, and the resentment is destroying their marriage. If DiCaprio and Winslet’s first teaming; Titanic, was about the power of romance then their second is about the death of romance, its slow strangulation by routine and mundanity. Revolutionary Road is a harsh film; all sharp edges and pressure cooker atmosphere, and that doesn’t make it an easy watch, but it does make it an impactful one. For the film’s first two acts Sam Mendes lets all the tension, all the resentment, all the anger, in Frank and April’s relationship come to a raging boil, and then in the third act the pot boils over, unleashing all that is held in and repressed in the first 90 minutes of the movie. It is to DiCaprio and Winslet’s credit that this rather melodramatic structure works.

The fact that Leonardo DiCaprio has only, in recent years, been nominated for an Oscar for his distinctly middling work in Blood Diamond is a travesty, and seldom one as acute as it is in this case. The former pretty boy has grown into an actor of intense focus and force. Frank hums with barely contained energy, but DiCaprio understands that doing too much, becoming theatrical, would unbalance the film, instead he opts for the coiled spring approach, showing Frank’s thoughts through tiny adjustments, the resentment burning behind his eyes. When that third act comes though the explosion is completely credible and frightening. 

Winslet is, perhaps, even better. In The Reader it was all you could do not to dwell on her (solid) German accent, but here her mid American tones sound completely natural, and you accept them without question. Outside of those technical aspects her performance is another masterclass from an actress who gives one almost every time she’s on screen. April’s hopes and dreams come alive in her in the scenes when she thinks they are moving to Paris, and when it becomes clear that that won’t be happening you can almost see the dream crushed before your eyes. The remarkable thing though, about both of these performances, is that they don’t come across as performances. Frank and April feel like living, breathing people.

The only actor from Revolutionary Road who has actually scored an Oscar nomination is Michael Shannon. In a year in which the award weren’t a forgone conclusion I’d count him in with a shout, and certainly, he doesn’t deserve the loss he’ll take to Heath Ledger’s lip-smacking hamming. In a perverse way his character, the ‘insane’ son of Frank and April’s neighbour (Kathy Bates), is the most honest person in the film, and that’s why his every brilliantly delivered line stings. It’s his final declaration of why he’s happy that will, of all the many good things in this film, stay in your head for days.

For his part Director Sam Mendes, as well as extracting fantastic performances from his stars, creates a convincing vision of mid-50’s America. The costuming and set design is excellent, but it’s also in the way the film is shot, as Mendes employs a largely still, spare style that fits the period as well as the story.

There are a few problems, each is small, but they do add up. Thomas Newman’s music, for instance, is beautiful in and of itself, but at times it is insistent to the point of being hectoring, and it also becomes repetitive. Kathy Bates, usually a fine actress, works rather too hard to provide some comic relief and she ends up being the one cast member to strike a false note. There are also a few too many bitty scenes at the film’s end, it’s only five minutes or so, but there are about three scenes that the film could stand to lose, in order to find a slightly more satisfying final image. These are all small problems, but they do mean that I can’t give the top grade that DiCaprio and Winslet have certainly earned.

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