I’ve just watched Revolutionary Road for the second time. The first was some while back, but I haven’t picked up the DVD in the ensuing years. Frankly I’m surprised I did now, because I didn’t enjoy the film then, and, as it turns out, I didn’t enjoy it now either – and not for the inclusion of a slightly nasty scene of the aftermath of an abortion either, of which more anon.
Here’s the thing: you can not like a piece of work while still admiring many of the component parts, so let’s start off by admiring what there is to admire. To begin with, it’s directed by Sam Mendes, then Mr Kate Winslet. It stars Ms Winslet and Leo DiCaprio (repeating their Titanic double-act), Kathy Bates and a host of other fine actors. Production values are high, such that it looks and sounds exactly what it is – a very high quality product, one earning several Oscar nominations and indeed a Golden Globe for Ms Winslet’s performance. There is style and substance to the glorious cinematography, authenticity to the recreation of the 40s sets and costumes, in fact barely any footstep out of place.
Sounds good, yes? Well decidedly less than the sum of the parts, tell the truth. The critics were a bit sniffy in their praise too (see a couple of American reviews at the bottom.)
Let’s start with the theme. This material, taken from Richard Yates‘s best-selling novel, traverses the same plains as many a play and movie before it – the corruption of the American dream. Rather than taking the more extreme and macabre path of Blue Velvet, that theme is merged with the realism of the kitchen-sink drama, which you might think makes it not entirely dissimilar to Mendes’s previous triumph, American Beauty – particularly in the portrayal of a crumbling marriage.
Yes and no, though by comparison RR sounds shrill and brittle rather than profound, powerful and subtle. By rights it should be all three, but leaves the viewer curiously unmoved. Many of the human emotions are overblown, misplaced or simply fail to elicit credibility to move the audience to anything like the degree they should. Here, Mendes has allowed what should have been a more subtle, minimal drama to be sucked into the realms of melodrama.
Here’s a related gripe: comparing leading men with American Beauty reveals precisely why Kevin Spacey won a Best Actor Oscar for his role, and why Leo isn’t fit to lick his boots. To coin Dorothy Parker‘s epigram, Mr DiCaprio runs the gamut of emotions from A to B. His stock frown is used to excess, but when he hits the hysterical button it is unbearable to watch.
Yes, I appreciate that many like to watch him, but to me he demonstrates amply the difference between a leading man employed to be a “star” and one employing craft and guile to bring a character to life, like a dance of the seven veils. If Leo possesses veils through which to unmask a character gradually, they were most definitely not on display in this movie. He did not convince me of his transition from longshoreman to Knox company man to computer entrepreneur, let alone of his management of his marriage. What he is good at is standing there looking chic. Presence is one thing but you still have to convince us.
Don’t get me wrong, I think Kate Winslet is excellent here, as you would expect her to be. She is an actress of pedigree, one who began her career on the stage – and it shows. For Leo, that may have made a clinching difference.
As for the DIY abortion scene, this is actually far less intrusive than you might expect, deliberately given that it would instinctively raise many a hackle in the USA in particular. It is underplayed and handled with sensitivity, and is all the better for that. If anything the blood loss is way less than you would anticipate in a woman who dies very shortly afterwards, so what we see is symbolic – though I accept that even that would be cross some social mores and be deeply distressing to some viewers.
In fact, if you are likely to be upset you would be far better not seeing the movie at all, this being a boundary that it crosses, in the same way that Vera Drake analysed the issue of back street abortionists with skill – but many found that movie almost impossible to watch. In my opinion, movies have a responsibility to tackle subjects found in real life with balance and fairness, unpalatable though they might be to some.
So it saddens me to say, but Revolutionary Road has the ingredients for a massive hit but when you light the blue touch paper the rocket never soars as you’d hoped. A shame indeed. I wonder how it might have looked with Spacey in the lead? Alas, he would have been too old though. Ho hum.
“It takes the skill of stars Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio and director Sam Mendes to get this film to a place where it involves and moves us—which it finally does—but it is a near thing… Justin Haythe’s screenplay does many good things, but it can’t escape the arch lingo of the time… and that in turn makes the film’s concerns initially feel dated and outmoded as well… Encouraged by Mendes’ artful direction, his gift for eliciting naturalness, the core of this film finally cries out to us today, makes us see that the notion of characters struggling with life, with the despair of betraying their best selves because of what society will or won’t allow, is as gripping and relevant now as it ever was. Or ever will be.”
“[the film] comes close but falls short of capturing Richard Yates’ terrific novel… the movie—two-thirds Mad Men, one-third American Beauty, with a John Cheever chaser—works best when focusing on the personal. Thankfully, it’s there that Mendes and screenwriter Justin Haythe catch some of Yates’ weighty ideas, and where Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet succeed in doing the heavy lifting… DiCaprio, round-shouldered and sleepy-eyed, and Winslet, watchful and alert, raise up each other and everything around them. Never once shadowed by Titanic, they suggest, often wordlessly, the box the Wheelers have found themselves in. Whereas the novel is told mostly from Frank’s viewpoint, the movie is just as much April’s, and Winslet, whether fighting back or fighting back tears, is sensational.”