Thursday, 3 May 2012

Revolutionary Road (2008, Sam Mendes)

Richard Yates' much lauded first novel Revolutionary Road was and still remains a powerful read; charting the failure of the American dream, post-war insecurities, and the inevitability of loneliness all around the relationship of one young suburban couple. Yates' first triumph still speaks volumes about the human need to conform despite the diminishing effects upon the soul, however this adaptation feels all too flat and lifeless. Despite the strong revered source material, Sam Mendes' film feels more like an echo of themes we've seen before and better, telling us nothing new and coming off as rather an unnecessary exercise.

The drama centres around Frank and April Wheeler as they settle into their new life in the suburbs. Upon their first meet at a party, April announces her dreams to become an actress whereas Frank admits he is still searching for his calling. They have two children, a beautiful house, both of which are looked after by April as Frank works. Frank is unhappy in his job at the same company his dad worked for, a company Frank swore he'd never work for as a child, though vowing never to follow his dad's footsteps he's done exactly that.  The Wheeler's see themselves as outsiders to their suburban neighbours, they feel superior over the others as they feel they don't belong in that lifeless environment. April decides the best way for them to leave their rut would be to move to Paris, for her to take on a secretarial position and support the family while Frank 'finds himself'. Frank needs convincing but is eventually seduced by the idea, but will the Wheelers escape their hollow lives on the idealistic Revolutionary Road and make it across the shores to gay Paris? With three cast members reunited for the first time since Titanic (1997) it doesn't seem likely.

Revolutionary Road sees Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio on top form and possibly never better as the Wheelers. Despite the supporting characters not being clearly defined enough to form a counter distinction between their views of contentiousness with suburbia along side the Wheeler's distain for it, there isn't a dud performance in sight. Michael Shannon as John Givings; the recently released mental patient son of Mrs. Givings (Kathy Bates) quite literally steals the show in the few scenes he has. On screen John works as a not so subtle mechanism in the story to speak the unspeakable and get things moving amongst Frank and April as they weaver between their new life and their current one. John could have been a jarring and awkward presence if cast wrong but Shannon elevates this minor (but important) character bringing life to every frame he dominates. He represents the voice of the repressed, he sees everything for what it is and isn't afraid to speak out even at the cost of offending. He is disgusted by his mother's dull way of living as well as the Wheelers' and becomes the voice of reason they lack the courage to hear. John Givings is the most memorable part of Revolutionary Road which only highlights the films lack elsewhere.

With a weak bunch of poorly realised supporting characters we're given little to no juxtaposition in a story that clearly needs it. The film's structure is also a problem as we get only the slightest glimpse of a life before suburban angst sets in on Frank and April, again if we were allowed access into the happier if not alternate lifestyle before their marriage and move we'd get some more of that much needed juxtaposition. Instead we're more or less thrown into the centre of an unhappy marriage filled with disillusionment form the outset, it's easy to identify with the despair but not easy to bond with the couple making the whole film a rather jaded and cynical affair.

It must be said that the film deals with the big picture of societal problems and so isn't fixated on well drawn character studies, though this isn't an excuse that will stick. With filmmaker's such as David Lynch (Blue Velvet), Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven) and even Mendes himself (American Beauty) covering this suburban nightmare before and with better results, Revolutionary Road needed something to set itself a part and to offer something more than this. It merely ends up as a footnote compared to previous examples.

As said before the performances are wholly impressive and often powerful, especially when Frank and April really go for each other's throats. Sam Mendes shows his flair for composition and for creating a fitting atmosphere, this time accompanied by master cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Thomas Newman once again. Each shot is flawless, with each frame holding interest and textures to marvel at. Deakins could very well be the best working in his field today. Newman graces us with his usual minimalist nuanced piano which is affecting without drawing attention though it can also feel recycled at times.

All in all Revolutionary Road is a fine stand alone film despite some weak developments in vital areas. With filmmakers of this level bringing a book of Yates' stature to the screen, the results were never going to be completely without merit. It just appears that this particular adaptation came a little too late to flourish in all its worth.

For fans of: American Beauty (1999), Far From Heaven (2002), Little Children (2006)