Revolutionary Road

What it’s about:

Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) are a young married couple who have put aside their dreams for a stable, if dreary, lifestyle. When April can’t endure the frustration any longer, she comes up with a plan to move to Paris in an attempt to rescue their floundering relationship.

What we thought:

Anyone who’s been in a serious relationship will know that once the honeymoon period wears off, there are going to be some problems. And there are going to be some horrific times dealing with it. The good news, of course, is that often these problems are just trials that bind you closer together during a long, happy lifetime together. But sometimes it just doesn’t work out that way.

Revolutionary Road gives a voyeur’s glimpse into a couple that struggles to work through personal conflicts. In this adaptation from the novel by Richard Yates, DiCaprio and Winslet play the Wheelers – young and attractive, with a modest suburban home and a marriage falling apart at the seams. The sadistic irony is that these are the same star-crossed lovers of the biggest blub-fest in cinematic history, Titanic. The Wheelers once considered themselves special – leading interesting, bohemian lives, on their way to taking the world by storm. As the birth of kids and the mortgage interferes with their plans, they struggle with the mounting realisation that they are actually as ordinary as anyone else. 

British director Sam Mendes, after some fairly experimental work with Road to Perdition and Jarhead, returns to mine the same material which gave him his biggest hit, American Beauty – namely, a married couple’s efforts to escape the stifling mundanity of the suburbs. In fact, Revolutionary Road is American Beauty set in the 1950s, minus the funny bits. That may be oversimplifying things, but not by much.

I’m not sure why Mendes would revisit such familiar territory, unless he felt he had something more to say (what that is, though, isn't very clear). Moreover, I’m not sure why somebody would watch this film for entertainment, unless witnessing horrendous arguments is your idea of a rocking good time. There’s no doubt that Mendes is a director of considerable talent. In this film, though, there were moments when I wished he wouldn’t put his unflinching camera to such devastating use. Before the opening credits have even rolled, we’ve seen the kind of ride we’re in for – the snide remarks, cutting insults and sheer anguish that can only come from fighting with someone we love – or have loved. The result is the kind of dread that comes from watching your parents fight as a kid, and being unable to look away.

Winslet is superb as the unwilling housewife who hides her deep disappointment under a thin mask of gaiety. While her husband slowly succumbs to the self-delusions of a mediocre life, April grapples with acceptance less successfully. As she states at one point: "No-one forgets the truth. They just get better at lying." DiCaprio does a solid job when Frank flares up into one of his rages, but during the more stable moments of the film, he comes across as a movie star at a 50s dress-up party. 

I’m not old enough to be able to answer my question, but did people really behave like that in the 1950s - all "Gosh, gee whillikers" and talking in perfectly formed sentences? I’m not sure, but it came off as a little hammy – and it’s the same problem I had with Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven. Thankfully, the relatively unknown Michael Shannon brings some breathing room to the film. His scene-stealing performance as a slightly unhinged, truth-telling interloper helps save the Wheelers from drowning in ennui – for a time.

There’s a fair amount to admire about this film, from the flawless styling to the kind of heartbreaking moments that make it impossible not to wince. However, it takes a certain amount of fortitude to watch lives unravelling for entertainment. I’m not sure that’s a quality I enjoy exercising, even if it is for potential Oscar bait.

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