by Allan Fish
(USA 2008 119m) DVD1/2
Where we keep the euphemism
p Bobby Cohen, Larry Hart, Scott Rudin, Sam Mendes d Sam Mendes w Justine Haythe novel Richard Yates ph Roger Deakins ed Tariq Anwar m Thomas Newman art Kristi Zea cos Albert Wolsky
Leonardo DiCaprio (Frank Wheeler), Kate Winslet (April Wheeler), David Harbour (Shep Campbell), Kathryn Khan (Milly Campbell), Kathy Bates (Helen Givings), Richard Easton (Howard Givings), Michael Shannon (John Givings), Jay O.Sanders (Bart Pollock), Dylan Baker (Jack Ordway), Zoe Kazan (Maureen Grube),
So what does this film have to do with Who’s Afraid With Virginia Woolf?; aside from them both featuring warring marriages? Nothing. Yet that toss away line written by Edward Albee could not sum up Mendes’ film more accurately if it tried. Revolutionary Road refers to the street where the couple at the centre of the film, the Wheelers’, live, and yet as Juliet said, “what’s in a name?” Revolutionary Road is a euphemism – one used to describe a cul-de-sac or, as is perhaps more a propos in such a film, a roundabout which the couple are stuck on, the roundabout known in more succinct circles as conformity.
Take our couple; Frank Wheeler meets April in his twenties, sweeps her off her feet at an otherwise forgettable party, they marry, have two kids and move to suburbia. So far, so ordinary, but that’s just it. It’s sooooo ordinary, and both feel suffocation grasping them round the throat like a wrestler in an arm lock. The problem is that this isn’t the free sixties, but the stifling, repressed fifties, so everyone around them thinks they’re nuts when they decide to leave for Paris to start afresh.
This is Mendes returning to his familiar American Beauty territory, and the links go way beyond mere surface thematics. In the earlier film, all characters were sick of their life, of their own perceptions of failure and mediocrity. They set about changing them. What Mendes does here is show that things haven’t changed much in fifty years, it’s just that back then such ideas were not thought of as brave but lunacy. That which doesn’t conform and is thus alien, has to be the result of a delusional mind, right? In some ways then, it recalls the forbidden loves of the Douglas Sirk films of the fifties and, therefore, of Haynes’ Far from Heaven. Haynes, however, was merely reproducing the fifties in all its hypocritical, garden fence, asphyxiating glory. Mendes is probing deeper; note even the mise-en-scène, where those who loved his earlier Oscar winner will delight in his positioning of his characters, especially at the dinner table. In Beauty, it’s the kids who unknowingly show Lester Burnham the way out, whereas in Road it’s a man released from an asylum. Mendes is helped not only by the gorgeous period recreation, but by the peerless Roger Deakins’ immediate grasp of the seeming unspoken understanding he had with the late Conrad Hall. Just as in Beauty, the house, and indeed the colour scheme of the entire film, is patterned after white, as if to match the characters’ state of mind, walking around an asylum of their own making. There’s no red in the film at all, until the most fateful scene of all, but just as the eponymous roses had symbolic meaning in the sister film, so the blood here shows the life-force draining from one of the protagonists.
Amongst all the visual trappings, the cast have to be up to them, and suffice it to say all memories of that damned boat movie are forever banished. One expects great things of Winslet, and yet despite his recent, DiCaprio rises to, if not quite revolutionary heights, then at least revelatory heights. Nor can one overlook the contributions of Bates (in the Agnes Moorehead-type role), Shannon (superb), Baker, Sanders and Kazan. The real piece de resistance, however, among the supports, comes from Easton, whose fadeout with hearing aid turned down is quite sublime. To sum it up in a phrase, it may be a strange parallel, but this is a film that listens to Mark Renton’s soliloquy running down Princes Street; “choose life!” It’s a film for all those who didn’t have the balls – we’ve all been guilty, let’s face it – to get out quickly enough from jobs and/or relationships that stymied us. Here’s to escape from all our Revolutionary Roads.