Revolutionary Road: ‘Titanic’ chemistry is gone

2009-02-01 00:00

Suburban ennui is a happy subject for the chronically dissatisfied. Once, when suburbs were new, they represented the flight and neurotic withdrawal of humans from their social selves.

In America of the 1950s, which is when Richard Yates set his 1961 novel on which the film is based, suburbs were the bright new promise of independence and material wellbeing for a nation kicking into economic overdrive.

They also, however, came to represent conformity in its worst form, becoming soulless enumerations of atomised and alienated nuclear families.

This is the world of the Wheelers, Frank and Alice, played by Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio.

When they met, she was a would-be actress and he was a bright young man of undetermined promise.

We meet them at the moment that Alice’s life flops, when the curtain drops on her failed foray on to the stage. She finds herself standing on the precipice of ordinariness, and Frank, turning 30 and grinding away at his job in the city, half-heartedly pursues a secretary to salve his aimlessness.

Alice acts first in trying to save the marriage, proposing they flee their suburban home in Revolutionary Road and pack off to Paris. For a while, their renewed hope in themselves revitalises their relationship, but Frank is offered a promotion and a bigger salary and he realises he won’t be going anywhere. From there, of course, it’s all downhill and their dreams of better selves are shackled to the demands of daily routine.

We should all be slitting our wrists by now, but director Sam Mendes (who’s already done this theme in American Beauty), in adopting a theatrical rather than a more fluid cinematic style, dampens the emotional impact of the story. The characters are all, somehow, frozen in their picture-postcard pastel-shaded time, unable to reach across the decades. The book itself feels dated, so perhaps it’s unfair to blame the film for it.

Teaming up DiCaprio and Winslet again in this type of film was a mistake, however. The essence of the existential crisis in Revolutionary Road is of small lives that don’t quite manage to take spark. Bringing an echo and the remembered chemistry of Titanic into this more pinched world inevitably, even if unintentionally, gives it an unwanted epic wash.

The chemistry, by the way, is gone, even in the scenes where it belongs, and DiCaprio’s boyishness flounders in this darker psychological territory. As for Winslet — is this an Oscar role?

As wonderful an actress as she is, endless thousand-yard stares interspersed with fits of hysterics do not make for a winning performance.

There are flashes of brilliance, as in the scene where she dances in desperate abandon, expending the last of herself before plunging finally into her cruel fate. But beyond that, reluctantly, I felt her too bleached, too stylised, to be convincing.

Revolutionary Road is good for a small dose of the glums, but not good enough for a fully-fledged get-drunk chuck-your-job depression.

*** Yves Vanderhaeghen

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