Starring: Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kathy Bates, Michael Shannon, Dylan Baker, Richard Easton, David Harbour
Writer: Justin Haythe
Director: Sam Mendes
Adapting truly great novels onto film has always been, will always be, a near impossible task. The best novels, no matter their genre, tend to use the form in a way which proves beyond translation into another medium. Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road is one of the finest novels ever written, a breathtakingly sad viewpoint on the modern world which resonates as clearly today as it did when first published in 1961. It captured the hollowness of the American suburban dream, the arrogance of its people and the country at large. More than that, it rendered a neo-realist story of marital strife as a parable for middle class existence and page-turning, compelling read. Adapting his work into cinema would always prove difficult given that he so beautifully uses the space allowed in books for character development to create interesting and at-least partly-relatable people, something which is so rarely allowed in the shorter-form world of movie-making, especially within a Hollywood system.
That’s not to suggest that Mendes’ film coheres to any sort of Tinseltown stereotypes in watering down its subject matter. This is a very depressing, very claustrophobic and quite hopeless thematic piece. Where American Beauty at least ended on a note which, while depressing, indicated a certain fulfilment in its lead character than transcended his existence, this has nothing of the sort. Where Lester in American Beauty exhibited a hopefulness as to what life can offer, Frank and April seems only ever to toy with the idea of actual hope, rather managing to just play along with a delusion they both understand but cannot help to be seduced by. At the film’s close, any sense that the Wheelers, or any other young family in their situation, could manage to escape the suffocating march to death that the lifeless conformity of suburbia offers seems slim.
The film, and Yates to a lesser degree, certainly manages to find no sympathy for American suburbia. The only character able to truly see through the sheen is John, played brilliantly by Michael Shannon, whose insanity seems to have allowed him to escape its confines and therefore gives him an outsider’s perspective on the dreams of the Wheelers and the lives of those living around them. April and Frank never quite manage to see through their own pretension and illusions. They believe themselves to be better than those around them when in fact they are simply unable to accept the basic human rites of passage of understanding that you are not destined for great things and at some point, you have to accept that the flighty ambitions of youth need to be placed on the wayside. The entire premise of the film is the hopelessness of life which transforms it into a slow march towards death’s door. The concept is carried over from the novel but there is seems to have so much more emotional resonance. In the film, it’s just depressing.
Part of the problem is the script by Justin Haythe which manages to take all the key events that occur in the book but doesn’t manage to either bring across the cutting dialogue or the resonance of what happens. The dialogue throughout is stagey and uninspiring. It’s delivered with gusto but even with the actors working hard, it can’t shift outside of being stilted.
The issue then is that Mendes is unable to bring anything to the film to try and express the resonance that should be there. The cinematography from Roger Deakins is uniformly brilliant, managing to enhance the entire film without every bring attention to itself, as is the lighting which could be given in credit to the DP but, given the brilliant of the lighting in all of Mendes’ work, I would suggest he deserves some credit there. But outside of that, there isn’t much he can do to get the film to rise above its script. He can rely on Winslet, yet again proving herself probably the finest actress of her generation, but DiCaprio seems a little lost. He has proven himself a sterling performer in the past few years but he still hasn’t managed to be able to work within roles which require an older, more beaten performance. He is fine in the film but he can’t keep up with Winslet who constantly manages to disappear into her roles and convinces the audience of any actions or emotions she runs to during the film. Her final moments in the movie are desperately sad, easily the best synergy achieved between the acting and filmmaking in the whole picture. Michael Shannon too is outstanding, taking a role which could so easily have been overplayed and keeping it contained and impactful through refusing to let himself of the leash.
The film just can’t ever rise to meet the source material. Where it should be resonant and maybe a little scathing in its critique, it ends up a depressing and somewhat hollow experience. Breaking down the American dream is being done better in Mad Men and was done better by Mendes himself in American Beauty. Winslet and Shannon deserve the plaudits, but otherwise this is a curious and lifeless portrait of something which should have had such meaning.