Of all the year’s releases, Revolutionary Road must be the one with which the most inflated set of expectations come attached — and for a number of reasons; some good, and some bad. The one that has received the most attention is, typically, the least gripping: the much prophesied reunion of those ill-fated lovers, Kate and Leo, has finally come to pass, indulging the wishes of fans of Titanic, Money, and Adherents to the School of Overblown Thespianism.
More interestingly is that this represents a move into the mainstream for the film’s source, Richard Yates’ classic 1961 novel; a brilliant, moving study in acute social realism and surely a contender for greatest book of the twentieth century that almost went out of print. It is a story whose admirers have become irrationally proprietorial, reluctant to see it appropriated for the screen and disinclined to share with the plebeian hordes.
This reluctance was fuelled — for me, at least — by the film’s January release date. Films that come out in January are typically ones deemed by their distributors to be awards-contenders, and thusly must fulfill the criteria of being Powerful. Unfortunately for cinemagoers, the line between Powerful films and Overblown, Self-important ones is often an indistinct one to studio heads, and I feared that Revolutionary Road would fall into this latter category.
DiCaprio and Winslet play Frank and Alice Wheeler, the young, sophisticated couple in ‘50s Connecticut who feel suffocated by their suburban existence. Surrounded by friends and neighbours whom the Wheelers look down upon for what they see as a tiresome parochialism, they finally spring upon the idea of resettling to Frank’s wartime station, Paris. As their plans unravel, the superficiality of their own lives gradually comes to the fore and culminates in terrible, inevitable tragedy.
In a sense, this is a remarkably faithful adaptation; elaborately conceived by screenwriter Justin Haythe to reconstruct the small scale of the plot without unnecessary embellishment. What’s more, after twelve years, it is reassuring to see that both Winslet and DiCaprio are on top form. DiCaprio perfectly captures his character’s preposterous pseudo-intellectualism, particularly in the scenes of spousal conflict, in which he wonderfully balances self-righteous egotism with a pitiful lack of depth.
Winslet’s performance, which has recently earned the actress a Golden Globe, is equally formidable, possibly single-handedly vindicating the decision to make the film. She endows Alice with so much repressed anxiety, squandered potential and delusion that it is a miracle that the performance never verges into melodrama.
For all these successes, however, there are still some rather glaring shortcomings that the lead performances are not quite able to redeem. Fundamentally, this is a story that relies on what is left unspoken: Yates is a master of picking apart the minutiae of everyday life, identifying every last foible with razor-sharp incision, and as much as director Sam Mendes artfully contrives to infer meaning from his cast, even a face as expressive as Kathy Bates’ cannot do justice to pages of inner monologue so acutely realised that they induce flinching recognition — a case, perhaps, of a word being worth a thousand pictures.
More problematic is the fact that Mendes — a veteran of this sort of domestic drama — has been so diligent in his reproduction of the original text that he has lost much of the urgency in favour of mere homage. Consequently, for the first two-thirds of the film — until a magnificent breakfast scene between Frank and Alice which feels almost intrusively intimate — it is as if a barrier has been deliberately placed between performance and audience: a device, maybe, but an irritating one.
In spite of these — relatively minor — gripes, this is undoubtedly a superlative screen translation that, whilst certainly not transcending Yates’ material, does an admirable job in trying to do it justice.