A young couple living in a Connecticut suburb during the mid-1950s struggle to come to terms with their personal problems while trying to raise their two children. Based on a novel by Richard Yates.
This excellent adaptation of a classic American novel is an occasionally uncomfortable watch as it plots the pitfalls of relationships and demonstrates how easily things can slip away.
Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio) meets April (Kate Winslet) at a party and their mutual attraction to the best versions of themselves is immediate: she’s a confident, beautiful, aspiring actress; he’s an urbane, ironic, well-travelled dreamer. They quickly fall in love, united in a determined and almost desperate desire to be exceptional.
Flash forward to the mid-'50s and reality has put paid to their plans. April is now a stay-at-home mother of two whose acting is limited to occasional showings in lousy amateur theatre productions. She keeps house in their picture-perfect post-war cottage in the suburbs of Connecticut, whilst Frank commutes to New York each day. He play-acts as a nine-to-fiver, shuffling paperwork and deflecting responsibility in a cubicle at the same typewriter sales company where his long-forgotten father worked. He tolerates his job by mocking it with ironic detachment, and his half-arsed problem solving skills demonstrate his lack of interest in career advancement.
After hours the Wheelers spend the cocktail hour in the company of their neighbours, the Campbells. Frank and Shep served in the war together but nowadays, geography is their only common thread (that, and Shep’s deep, unrequited crush on April).
Mendes’ direction maintains the pace of Richard Yates’ novel, and we soon discover the resentment that lurks beneath the Wheelers’ happy family façade. When the audience applauds gratefully as the final curtain falls on one of April’s plays (The Petrified Forest), Frank manages to say and do the worst thing possible as an icebreaker. In the car trip home his futile attempts at back-pedalling are met with deafening silence but he continues in the vain hope that she will acknowledge his efforts; his ignorance of her humiliation proves to be his undoing.
A simmering argument boils over into a verbal, near-physical slanging match on the side of the highway, and culminates in one of several sleepless nights spent on the couch for April, and a dalliance with a workmate for Frank.
In the argument’s clarifying aftermath, April hits on a brilliant idea: they ought to shake things up and move to Paris, where they would be free to "live life as if it mattered". She offers to take the lead as the primary income earner, leaving Frank free to pursue his dormant dreams, and feels a renewed sense of purpose at the notion. After winning over Frank, she sets the plans in place to thumb their noses at mediocrity – with little concern for the other noses that might be put out of joint in the process.
Revolutionary Road cuts close to the bone in its exploration of what makes a relationship tick. DiCaprio and Winslet embody the contradictions of real people, capable of venom and vulnerability in equal measures. The maturity of the performances they put in here is an obvious reminder of just how long ago their last pairing was, as awkward and (for my money) unconvincing star-crossed lovers on board the Titanic.
Frank and April may be a generation younger than George and Martha of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but their casual cruelty has them heading down the same nasty, gin-sodden path. The main difference between them is that when the Wheelers aren’t at each other’s throats, they’re well, at each other, as a late night grope against the kitchen cupboards indicates.
The screenplay faithfully captures the essence of Yates’ novel, including lifting direct passages. However, one notable diversion lies in the handling of Frank’s infidelity, which lacks the lengthy, considered, guilt-ridden build-up Yates afforded it in the novel. There, Frank’s indiscretion is the culmination of a period of apprehensive and ambiguous flirtation between he and an attractive co-worker; that approach makes Frank’s immediate remorse and the ensuing events all the more profound. On film, however, Frank’s conquest could well be the latest in a string of frumpy and available secretaries. He’s depicted as a cad, and rightly so, but the different tack oversimplifies things in an otherwise loyal adaptation.
The two leads are ably assisted by a stellar supporting cast, which includes David Harbour as the lovelorn Shep, Kathy Bates as the neighbourhood snoop, and in particular, by Michael Shannon as the latter’s son John. In a non-Heath Ledger year, Shannon should have/would have won the supporting actor Oscar for his portrayal of the film’s true outsider. As a psychiatric patient on day release, he’s unbridled by social niceties and is free to call things as he sees 'em. Yes he’s a literary device, but he’s a full-bodied, red-blooded one who revels in holding the mirror up to other people’s delusions.
Revolutionary Road offers up a fascinating, unflinching look at the tender trap that can gradually ensnare you, if you let it. It’s a fine film that got lost in the maelstrom of Awards season movies but deserves to find a wider audience. Seek it out (and hug your nearest and dearest afterwards).