Revolutionary Road (Sam Mendes)

February 5, 2009

This looks like being a good year for mainstream films: once again, I’ve hoisted myself into a cinema. As ever: spoiler alert. Revolutionary Road is a film I’d recommend you see, and I do so hate knowing anything about films before I see them. I would encourage you, if you choose to look away now, to think of it as a biopic (and how long before there is a good one?) of Mao, or Fidel, or Mandela (the latter at least is on its way, with Morgan Freeman in the red corner).

As a film, Revolutionary Road strikes one immediately as quite old-fashioned, not because it is set in the 1950s (which it is, with all the period detail big films get mostly right. Some nerd has spotted that there is a Buick from the wrong year in the film (!), but the detail is as convincing as any I’ve seen). In fact, it has the air of an adaptation of a stage play – I was genuinely surprised to find that it had been adapted from a 1961 novel. In fact, to be specific, it reminded me of nothing so much as an Albee play, and particularly Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? – not least because it really needs strong actors to drive it through, because it has a warring couple with contradictory fantasies at its centre, and because it has a slightly similar claustrophobia about it. (I won’t stretch the point any further, except to say that one could quite image a young Burton and Taylor in the main roles.)

I like the film, not just because of Kate Winslet’s and Leonardo DiCaprio’s performances, which are, in each case exceptional. I will be slavishly unoriginal and suggest that Winslet really is the new Meryl Streep, not just because of her range, but because of her command of the genre, which is 95% to do with being able to act with an expressively impassive face. I think I prefer The Reader as a film; and I suspect that Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind is still her most remarkable performance, but this film runs both of the others close.

The simplicity of the conundrum at the heart of the plot is made gripping by the acting. Poor actors couldn’t have saved it. It’s this: should we be safe but sorry, or reckless and happy? Winslet’s character, April, is bored out of her skull by playing wife and mother; DiCaprio’s character, Frank, is becoming dulled by his office job. Just as they have made the ‘revolutionary’ decision to chuck it all in and move to Paris – clearly an illogical, exaggerated step, but one in the right direction – two things happen. April gets pregnant for the third time; Frank is offered a huge business opportunity. It’s a lose-lose scenario. Everyone who knows thinks they are out of their mind, except for a local¬†man who has been consigned to the electric shock hospitals in which the US specialised. His erratic, brutal, straight-talking but not necessarily accurate assessment of the couple brings their relationship to the brink (this is a startling, film-stealing cameo by Michael Shannon).¬†

Michael Shannon in 'Revolutionary Road'

Michael Shannon in 'Revolutionary Road'

That’s all there is to the film – a tussle between the couple, who want the same and want different at the same time. But it is a gripping tussle all the same, and not knowing how it can or will be resolved is what makes it.

There were quite a few things that struck me – and had time to strike me – while watching the film. The first was that, although Mendes has a really tight hold of the performances of his cast, he is not confident enough to edit some of the scenes more drastically. Too much dwelling on the shot. Another is that the children in the film are too obviously not in evidence to suit the movement of the plot (it reminded me, obscurely, of the way Tracy Barlow, of Coronation Street, was always ‘upstairs’, when in her teens, and sorry about the soapy aside there). Arguably, the children could have been edited from the script, in fact, without damaging the central premise. And I absolutely did not believe in the neighbour who suddenly had a quick fling with April.

But these grumbles aside, it was compelling. Winslet’s astonishing acting admitted you to everything but the inner life of her character – that puzzle persisted beautifully, to the very end of the film. I won’t spoil any more.

On a trivial note, I do wish David Thomson (The Guardian) hadn’t made such a song-and-dance the other day about Winslet’s size 11 feet. It is the kind of irksome knowledge which turns your head away, now and then, from the action. ‘Feet like ferryboats,’ my father would have said. And DiCaprio, who must surely now have shaken off his cheeky-boy turn in Titanic, has nevertheless something about him that fatally reminds me of Mickey Dolenz, later of the Monkees, and God knows how they’ve got into my blog twice in one week, but years earlier as ‘Circus Boy’, under the pseudonym Mickey Braddock. This is my fault not his. Sorry, Leonardo. You’re a great actor.

Mickey Dolenz as Circus Boy, 1957.

Mickey Dolenz as Circus Boy, 1957.

See what I mean?