Revolutionary Road Review
In American Beauty Sam Mendes looked behind the neat façade of US suburban utopia to explore the murky areas of family dysfunctionality and the consequences of unfulfilled dreams and yearnings. With this adaptation of the Richard Yates novel, he's doing something similar in a 50s period setting, and again he creates that atmosphere of mild foreboding by meticulous observation, undercut by a haunting Thomas Newman score. Revolutionary Road is notable as the first movie where the star director directs his equally exalted wife, Kate Winslet, and it also re-unites Winslet with Leonardo DiCaprio as a couple after their memorable pairing in Titanic. The chemistry between the two actors is much different from then, though it soon finds a level where they become all too convincing, and their interaction will cause anyone who's been involved in a long-term relationship to smile with recognition.
At first all is light between April and Frank Wheeler. She is an aspiring actress, riding a wave of optimism and serendipity on which the somewhat directionless Frank hitches a ride, both of them convinced that everything in life will work out as it should. In pursuit of their ideals, they move to a big white clapboard house on the appropriately named Revolutionary Road in the Connecticut suburbs, feeling themselves somehow superior to their neighbours and merely 'playing at' this kind of conventional living. But several years on, as an entrenched married couple, they are having rows, scapegoating one another for failures as individuals and as a unit. April's acting career has foundered and she is stuck with her lot as a housewife and mother, whilst Frank is tied to a sales job at Knox Business Machines, commuting to work every day on the train along with hundreds of other 50s men - in a sea of uniform suits and hats.
On one significant day, where Frank takes a journey of discovery of his own, April hatches out a scheme to save them from themselves and everything that is threatening to engulf them. She proposes that they move to Paris, where she can earn good money as a secretary and Frank can 'find himself', and somehow, as is the way with these spontaneous fancies, all their former aspirations will come back on track. Their close friends and neighbours, Milly and Shep Campbell (Kathryn Hahn and David Harbour), are happy for them but privately think the whole thing is a half-baked. And some of the sharpest insights come from an unexpected quarter, the mentally ill son of other friends, Helen and Howard Givings (Kathy Bates and Richard Easton), whom they introduce to the Wheelers as part of his ongoing rehabilitation. John (Michael Shannon), a mathematician who admits he's had all the maths knocked out of him by ECT, still retains an extraordinary mental acuity, and more than anyone he can empathise with April and Frank's sense of 'hopeless emptiness' and their need to live out their destinies.
Revolutionary Road is one of those movies where technical excellence in every department - from Roger Deakins' moody cinematography and Kristi Zea's wonderful recreation of 50s life, to the great central performances of Winslet and DiCaprio and Mendes' sure touch throughout - buttress a underlying story whose ultimately dark and downbeat character might be an obstacle to some. Nonetheless it remains a profound meditation on the importance and the fragility of dreams and the problems that the dreams are attempting to mask. The film hinges on Winslet and DiCaprio together, and they truly bring out the best in one other as they run the gamut of love, anger, hate and despair. Winslet's accent is very unobtrusive and her playing of an American shows great control and mastery; and DiCaprio's portrayal of an ultimately fickle and shallow individual is one of his best pieces of acting yet.
The supporting players too are excellent, particularly older couple Kathy Bates and Richard Easton, and also Michael Shannon, whose John Givings is mesmeric, getting those sudden shifts in emotional temperature and the scary disinhibition of the mentally ill to perfection. In one key scene, an acting masterclass for all concerned, John completely loses it, but in the midst of his craziness he spouts some highly unpalatable truths that no one wishes to hear.
So, Revolutionary Road demands a certain kind of attention and staying power, but for connoisseurs of movie carpentry it has rich rewards. And Sam Mendes is to be congratulated for taking on a difficult project that makes a worthy continuation of the theme of high threnody running through American Beauty, Road to Perdition and Jarhead.