Screenwriters: Justin Haythe
Starring: Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kathy Bates, Richard Easton, Michael Shannon
Running Time: 119 mins
With domestic drama Revolutionary Road, British director Sam Mendes continues to explore the dark side of the American dream. It'll have a special resonance for those who saw Titanic, which is almost everyone of course, as it reunites the young lovers Kate Winslet (aka Mrs Mendes) and Leonardo DiCaprio to ask the question: Can youthful idealism survive the choppy waters of real life? Like the 1961 novel by Richard Yates, there is bitter ire running through this film and, sadly, much less of the scathing satire that characterised Mendes's Oscar-winning American Beauty.
Baby-faced though he still is, DiCaprio puts away childish things and grits his teeth as Frank Wheeler; just another cog in the corporate machine. His wife April is the archetypal '50s homemaker, minding two children and a house in the suburbs. The thing is, they weren't always this dull. Mendes shows us the couple in earlier days when Frank was a rebel and April aspired to be an actress. One of the more sharply observed scenes comes early on, when Frank drives April home after a particularly awful am-drama production and humours her till she blows her top.
Longing for the days when anything seemed possible, April suddenly decides that Paris is their destiny. She confronts Frank with the idea of upping sticks and, more to the point, attempts to rediscover the adventurous young go-getter she fell in love with. At first Frank thinks his wife has got a screw loose, but then he's quickly on board, seduced by the prospect of recapturing some elusive thing that, until now, he's missed out on. No doubt this will chime with legions of thirty-something couples - the kind of people who watch A Place In The Sun on a Sunday afternoon and secretly hope the train breaks down on Monday morning.
The Wheelers' renewed enthusiasm is infectious simply because they are willing to effect a change. They break the news to their neighbours knowing they'll be scoffed at but relishing this because it confirms their once unwavering belief that they are 'special'. Inevitably though, willingness doesn't translate into action quite so easily. Frank has second thoughts after being offered a promotion, sparking a lot of marital spats that gradually take their toll on the marriage. And that's where the film feels more like a play. There is a lack of visual flair both in the staging and the setting. Mendes chooses not to highlight the period detail, but since the '50s was a defining era for America (and its picture postcard take on 'family values') that seems remiss.
It is the brutal intensity of the acting which steers the film. Even when the dialogue feels contrived - their arguments a little too intellectualised for the heat of the moment - Winslet and DiCaprio are always fully engaged with one another. But the real feat for both actors is that they manage to inspire empathy for two people who often behave like grownup brats i.e. narcissistic, superior and self-absorbed. It's also a canny feature of Yates's novel that the Wheelers are forced to entertain the local nutcase, John (a brazen Michael Shannon), who acts as a mirror to all their foibles and insecurities. Kathy Bates does a contrastingly pious turn as John's mother and thus offers a few precious witty moments. Still, Mendes is careful to keep the mood largely sombre ahead of a gruesome denouement which, visceral as it is, doesn't alter the pattern of the film; delivering more food for thought than fire in the belly.
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