Revolutionary Road (United States/United Kingdom, 2008)
Since 1997, Titanic fans have been yearning for a re-teaming of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Revolutionary Road is the opportunity they have awaited, but the results may cause as much distress as joy. Directed by Winslet's husband, Sam Mendes, and faithfully adapted by Justin Haythe from the novel by Richard Yates, this is the dissection of an imploding marriage and a contemplation about life in surburbia. It's a sad, grim movie that asks pointed questions about the compromises we make and the lies we tell in an effort to maintain a sense of equilibrium. And is it more courageous to face up to one's responsibilities or to follow a dream, no matter how impossible it may seem?
It's western Connecticut in 1955. Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his wife, April (Kate Winslet), are entering a dark period in their marriage. Communication between them has broken down and Frank has begun to stray with a co-worker (Zoe Kazan). He's not happy with his job; he hates the work but needs the money to support April and his two children. Then, on his birthday, April presents Frank with a plan: sell their cozy house on Revolutionary Road and move to Paris. There, after leaving behind the "hopeless emptiness" of their current life, they can begin anew. April can work while Frank takes some time for self-discovery. He is initially enthused by the idea, but reality begins to intrude on the fantasy. Frank is offered a major promotion, and with it comes more money and more responsibility, and April learns that she is pregnant with the couple's third child. Suddenly, Paris seems like a fairy tale and the union that had been buoyed by a spark of elusive hope, crashes and burns.
Something about the rot that often lies buried beneath the calm picket fence façade of the suburbs appeals to Sam Mendes. He explored the subject in American Beauty and returns to it here. Unlike David Lynch, however, he doesn’t see the suburbs as sinister, but merely as life-sapping. Can it be that the so-called "American Dream" - a wife, children, the one-family house - can only be achieved at the price of compromising one's soul and neutering one's creativity? The Wheelers' marriage is not destroyed by infidelity or money troubles or communication difficulties (although all are, in one way or another, symptoms) but by the simple recognition that they are trapped by a sense of ordinariness. They had always believed themselves to be on the cusp of greatness. Now, in a flash of acute clarity, they recognize that this is untrue.
A lot of marriages are like this, with many of the fundamental problems not having changed in 50 years. Too many unions begun with hope and optimism degenerate into stale existences with two disconnected individuals living under the same roof. Today, many such couples divorce. In 1955, divorce was less common, so husbands and wives would argue and find ways to make temporary peace. It's unfair to claim that the happy suburban family was (or is) an illusion, but the reality is not as perfect as the illusion. There are challenges to be overcome, one of the most prominent of which is the battle between following a dream and bringing home a healthy income. In the Wheelers' marriage, Frank is the pragmatist and April is the dreamer. Their most searing conflicts are born out of the inherent opposition of those two natures.
We see Frank and April at their best and their worst. There are times when we catch glimpses of the people they were before routine, repression, and the need to conform ground them down. Do they love each other and their children, or are they going through the motions, trying to present themselves as the perfect family to their "friends" and neighbors? Is the decision to move to Paris ever a real plan or is it a perfect fantasy that keeps them afloat until it is no longer possible to face it as more than something distant and ephemeral? One character remarks that Europe will always be there but, for Frank and April, it has become as far away as the moon.
Watching DiCaprio and Winslet, it's hard to remember that these were the star-crossed lovers in Titanic. Their on-screen relationship here is more real and brittle - not the kind of marriage some viewers would hope for from Rose and Jack. The actors use their chemistry (they are great friends) to forge an underlying sense of affection between Frank and April, but the fractures are deep and widening. These are believable, flawed people and, as in situations like this, fault can be generously apportioned. It's possible to understand both sides. Assigning blame is as difficult as determining the solution. Winslet's performance is more emotive than DiCaprio's, but that's because of the nature of her character. Both portrayals are credible and, while Winslet's performance in The Reader is probably more likely to gain Oscar consideration than her work as April, it seems unfair to single out one over the other.
Thomas Newman's score deserves mention. The music is simple and subtle, and he employs a low-key theme during certain scenes that creates an undertone of dread. It works on a subliminal level, increasing the audience's sense that all is not right within the home. Likewise, Roger Deakins' camerawork shows the picture perfect houses along Revolutionary Road from angles that evoke a sense of nicely designed prisons. Deakins never provides us with an image of suburban bliss. Instead, there's a claustrophobic atmosphere even when scenes take place outside.
Revolutionary Road is dramatically potent material and, although it poses a number of philosophical questions, it works best as an unsentimental examination of a marriage in crisis. Because the actors are expert, Mendes understands the subject matter, and the source material is so meticulous, we are left emotionally impacted but without a sense of having been manipulated. Revolutionary Road is a fine motion picture, but it's not a good choice to lighten a burden or brighten a night. It rewards in the ways that only tragedies can.
Revolutionary Road (United States/United Kingdom, 2008)
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Kathy Bates, Kathryn Hahn, David Harbour, Zoe Kazan
Screenplay: Justin Haythe, based on the novel by Richard Yates
Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Music: Thomas Newman
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Vantage