With prices for cinema tickets now reaching ridiculous heights it’s not often I will treat myself to a new release unless it’s something I simply cannot wait for. Instead, I’m happy to content myself with a cheap DVD or a film on TV which may have slipped through my critical net and, believe me, there have been far too many. Whether the films featured here are recent or old I’ll still be providing my honest opinion on them and, with the benefit of hindsight in many cases, may offer a slightly different take to contemporary reviewers.
Revolutionary Road (2008)
Do you ever have those moments where you think about your life and ask yourself is this the best I could be doing? It’s happened to me many times and pursuing writing is my way of trying to achieve something I’d be happy to do for a living. I’m sure all of us at some point have wished for better things and many have achieved their desires, others soldier on content, but not as happy as they might be. Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road, based on the 1961 novel by Richard Yates, takes a look at a suburban couple in the 1950s, both far from happy with their lives but with the chance to change things.
The film begins with Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and April (Kate Winslet) Wheeler having an argument following April’s appearance in a disastrous play that has not been well received. Their verbal exchange makes for uncomfortable viewing and is made all the more tragic by a brief reminiscence of when the couple first met and had big ambitions for the future. We are then given a linear narrative as the couple go about their lives in their home on Revolutionary Road. Frank works in an office, the same as his father did for 20 years, but Frank hates his job, never really pushing himself and is having an affair with a colleague, Maureen (Zoe Kazan). April is largely confined to the Wheelers home, the domestic goddess that was so prominent in the Victorian Age but it is not an existence she thrives on, wanting much more in life. One day April thinks back to a time when she and Frank spoke of Paris, the latter revealing how amazing life is in France. April proposes she and Frank abandon the suburbs and start a new life in France. She insists she will work as a secretary while Frank stays at home and decides what he wants to do with his life. It’s the chance of a major change for the Wheelers but do they see it through?
Sam Mendes gave us a great insight into American suburban life in his masterpiece American Beauty (1999) and he does the same here. The Wheelers portray the image of the perfect family to their neighbours, Helen (Kathy Bates) and Howard (Richard Easton) Givings, and Milly (Kathryn Hahn) and Shep (David Harbour) Campbell. Helen is frequently visiting and seems intent on making sure the Wheelers are maintaining the peaceful equilibrium of suburban life. The Campbells, like the Wheelers, have something to hide but manage to disguise it though not as convincingly as Frank and April. Milly seems constantly on edge while her husband, Shep, gives occasional but noticeable glances at April. Frank and April have entered a world where happy families are not just expected but demanded. The suburbs in the 1950s seem the perfect place but sadly for the Wheelers their surroundings only serve to create further cracks in their marriage.
After initially dismissing April’s idea of moving to Paris, Frank realises it might not be a bad idea. The couple begin to announce their news to friends who are taken aback and don’t know what to say, causing much delight for the Wheelers who are finally breaking free of social convention’s stranglehold. The Givings’ troubled son, John (Michael Shannon), is the only one to speak up and try and lift the suburban masks the couples are wearing. His outbursts are dismissed and ignored as he isn’t well but, ironically, it is John that talks more sense than anyone in the film, frequently touching nerves with the truth. Inevitably, the strain of domestic life continues to weigh heavily on Frank and April and their hopes for a better life are threatened when Frank, submitting a sarcastic piece of work, is recognised as a great talent and offered a lucrative promotion. Frank suddenly sees some good out of the mundane job he does and the move to France becomes less appealing. Even worse, April discovers she’s pregnant with the couple’s third child but is so determined to leave for Paris that she considers an abortion, an idea furiously condemned by Frank. With the couples’ dream of a better life seemingly in tatters, something has to give.
When I read the synopsis for Revolutionary Road I thought the move to Paris would be the focal point of the film but this is simply a study of the pressure of maintaining a domestic paradise in the heaven that is the suburbs and whether it’s possible to break free from it all. Watching Frank and April trying to escape their unfulfilling lives was difficult. A film of this nature is bound to end in tragedy and Revolutionary Road does leave a bitter taste at the end. The only issue with the film is that it perhaps could have had more emphasis on the gulf between Frank and April at the start of their relationship to the sad descent in the present. We are given a couple of instances of their lives when things were great between them and the future looked bright but other than that we have to accept that the difficulties have been a part of their marriage for a long time. That’s a minor quibble, of course, for I do believe the film portrays a frightening view of suburban life in the 1950s and in April we have a modern and independent woman still bound by the expectation that her only option in life is being in the kitchen.
Revolutionary Road is a thought-provoking and tragic drama depicting the perfect surface of suburban life but revealing the maelstrom of troubled marriages and relationships beneath. A much better pairing for DiCaprio and Winslet than in Titanic, Revolutionary Road remains enthralling throughout but will leave you exhausted by the time you reach the poignant ending.
Verdict: 8½ /10
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