Revolutionary Road (2008)
Judith Warner, writing on The New York Times, theorizes on why the “sixties before it became the sixties” came to be the preferred ethos of our decade in film and TV.
… as an unrebellious, cautious, anxious generation, many of us are living lives not all that different from those of the parents of the early 1960s, yet without the seeming ease, privileges and benefits. Husbands have been stripped of the power perks of their gender, wives of the anticipation that they’ll be taken care of for life.
Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men‘s been getting all the attention, deservedly, and now Revolutionary Road, based on a 1961 Richard Yates novel that writers and critics hold as the definitive statement of that particular class and era. Sam Mendes’ version has been apparently championed by his wife and star of the film, Kate Winslet, in a probable attempt to finally get that Oscar, since the role is pratically tailored to her abilities. In 2006 she starred in Todd Field’s Little Children, which not only touched on similar themes, but the novel it was based on, by Tom Perrotta, follows Yates’ blueprint almost to the letter. It’s true that nothing in Little Children could have prepared for the devastatingly brutality of Revolutionary Road, which is the closest American cinema can get to the starkness of Bergman – think Scenes from a Marriage.
While Justin Haythe’s script is a competent and swift compression of the novel, Mendes’ rendition is too icy, bereft of the life Yates imparted to these characters. One of the greatest strengths of the book, one recognized by DiCaprio and Winslet is that every character seems to lead separate lives, and Yates uses these perspective shifts to great effect in the novel. There is no structural parallel to this in the film, and we have to rest on the ability of the actors to portray this. While Winslet does give a greatly nuanced performance, it seems too self-conscious and too studied, she seems to be aware of every little contortion of her face and its meaning all the time. It came to me that maybe it was intentional, since her character, April, is supposed to be a frustrated actress, but given April’s disastrous performance in the play that opens the movie, it seems rather unlikely (April’s only great performance will come in the breakfast scene, but the way Winslet does it, Frank couldn’t have bought it). A few key line readings are just too calculated, such as “Oh, you’ll what? You’ll leave me. What’s that supposed to be, a threat or a promise?”. In this light, DiCaprio comes off as the better actor, allowing himself to be closer to the character of Frank – he lacks the self-awareness that Winslet brings to the part.
The ending is also rather disappointing because of this flattening of perspective. Mendes decided to show a key event Yates alluded to indirectly. The result of this in the novel is that it was done through the eyes of Frank, and it resonates strongly on his feelings of guilt and impotence. In Mendes’ version, Frank is left out of the equation, and what we get is a undramatic tableau of extended self-pity on the part of April. Frankly, it doesn’t work. Something must be said also of Michael Shannon’s role – in the book he seems to be the most sane character, an outsider who speaks his mind and defuses the values and insecurity of Frank and April’s world, and Shannon does it brilliantly, as Roger Ebert pointed out in his review, on very thin ice, verging on caricature.