Sunday, February 01, 2009

Revolutionary Road

Although Revolutionary Road has garnered a few award nominations, it hasn't grabbed any of the really big nominations, and so was not on my list of films that I really needed to see BEFORE they hit shiny disc.

However, a particularly gruelling week at work, followed by some tedious study on Saturday morning left me wanting some escape from all the drudgery and so I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to go and see the film at my local cinema, The Clapham Picture House, now thankfully outfitted with pristine digital projection.

Kate and Leo in Revolutionary Road

Despite a high rating on imdb the response from the British critics seems to have been somewhat luke-warm, with one or two pathetically resorting to mean-spirited attacks on Leo DiCaprio's 'weasily' face as some sort of critique. Nearly all reviews have emphasised the bleakness of the piece, with many concluding that this new essay on American Suburbia, set in the 1950's, is a much lesser work than director Sam Mendes' earlier 1999 treatise on the same subject, American Beauty. Seemingly Revolutionary Road is in dire need of some of the black humour that helped elevate that piece. So, I was all set up for a film of unremitting despair and dreariness. Thankfully I got a beautifully directed and acted piece about the break up of a marriage in the 1950's, which had real intelligence and depth and - weren't you paying attention critics? - several moments of black humour too.

As the film opens we meet Kate and Leo's characters, April and Frank Wheeler, strangers flirting with each other across a crowded room, quickly falling in love. Most reviewers have tried to play down the hype around this reunion of Winslet and DiCaprio - their first film together since the collosally successful Titanic - pointing out that these are two very different characters from the star-crossed, iceberg-bound lovers who many wanted to see reunited again. The couple will indeed spend most of this new film's running time tearing each other apart. That being said, I think these could very well be the same couple, with the film effectively showing that romantic feelings (or lust) do not necessarily make the best starting point for a good, long, happy marriage. We're not long into the film before realising the couple are having problems. April has aspirations to be a professional actress, but her first amateur dramatics production is a disaster, with her own performance being the worst thing about it; whilst Frank is stuck in an office job he hates but suffers in order to provide for his family and young children. He finds himself so miserable and unhappy that it's hardly surprising he ends up having a one night stand with an infatuated doe-eyed secretary. Marriage-wise, things can clearly only go downhill from here.

Unfortunately, this first, short section of the film suffers greatly from comparisons to Mad Men, the Emmy-award winning series about ad men in the early 60's. The characters look and act the same, the set design (particularly of the offices and restaurants) look and act the same, and the basic story seems to be the same. All that's missing are the more soap-y elements necessary to keep a show running over 13 hours of prime-time TV. So comparisons are inevitable when the film starts off failing to offer anything different.

Fortunately things take a turn about 20 minutes in, and from then-on the film becomes a gripping, acting tour-de-force as the lives of the young married couple who feel they are 'special' compared to those around them, unravel.

When April sees a chance for the family to escape their dull, suburban, unhappy lives, by escaping to Paris for a new life, it seems that maybe there will be a 'happy ever after' ending after all, despite their seeming naivety about what awaits them in Paris. Neighbours and friends are incredulous, if a little envious, but events soon conspire against the couple as multiple chickens seem to come home to roost at the same time and the planned escape starts to fall apart in spectacular

Most reviews have centred on Kate Winslett winning performance as a depressed housewife, but for me DiCaprio's performance is the real relevation, and the far more interesting performance of the two. He has a much less sympathetic character to play but beautifully expresses the pain, sadness and anger his character experiences without resorting to histrionics. He is never less than 100% convincing, and the pain in his eyes is hard to bare. The actor has come a long way from the ridiculous 'pauper' acting as Jack that he gave us in Titanic.

Winslett delivers, as one would expect her to, based on previous form, but I couldn't help feeling this is the same Winslett act we've seen so many times before -Kate doing her teary, worthy, Oscar-nominated thing. It just felt a little too 'clever' to be entirely believable for me.

That being said, I was gripped by the film, right to its rather startling and abrupt end. The film takes its time to tell its story and tells it well, and the cinematography, from stalwart Roger Deacon is
stunning. It may not be a 'feel good' movie, but it's nowhere near as bleak as some critics have implied, and we're blessed that Hollywood can turn out strong, intellectual fare like this amongst all the banality
of gross-out 'comedies' and mindless action flicks that are guaranteed to put teenage bums on seats and turn a hefty profit.

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