Tuesday, 10 May 2011
Revolutionary Road (2008) Directed by Sam Mendes
Oh, pity the poor artist. In 2011 trying to be an artist on any level is a thankless task. There is a growing attitude that one must place one's artistic endeavors to one side: "get a proper job" and keep your artistic ideals at the hobby level. This is regardless of talent. Of course those who burn with the desire to express themselves will ignore such pious attitudes and push on. The Wheelers in Revolutionary Road, in the much harsher environment of 1950's American suburbia have put their artistic pretensions aside. They have settled down, had some kids, bought a nice house in a Connecticut suburb whilst Frank Wheeler has a job in computing. April, Frank's wife realizes that conforming is killing them.
When I first read Revolutionary Road over 10 years ago, the book impressed me so much I delved into the world of author Richard Yates head first. I would recommend Revolutionary Road to anyone who would listen, I tried to read all his other novels (though many were out of print at the time). Hell, I even named an album after one of his novellas. Despite receiving some coverage due to this film, the patronage of lesser lights like Nick Hornby and seeing all his work re-issued, Yates remains a well kept secret. I believe him to be one of the greatest writers of the last century and Revolutionary Road one of my favorite books, period. So, as objective as I can be, the film adaptation of Yates' debut novel was always going to be hard.
Revolutionary Road is a fine film, but not a great one. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet play Frank and April Wheeler. This is an actors' movie. My main problem with the film is Winslet, not how she performs, but more the attention her role gets. It feels compromised on the premise that it defines her character too clearly, therefore spelling out her thoughts and actions. It's a major flaw in the films' telling of Yates novel and betrays the book's essence. Mendes manages to re-create 1950's Connecticut perfectly (surely the look here a major influence on TV's Mad Men?) But Mendes misses on the flip side to the suburban decadence, the darkness and seedy aspects that so informs Yates' work. There is some over acting in some scenes and the soundtrack seems American Beauty light. DiCaprio is excellent, could this be his best role? One thing Revolutionary Road gets right though is the danger awaiting the Wheelers. It's not an iceberg that's going to finish off Kate and Leo this time. It is that less obvious killer, the white middle class suburban malaise. Watch out, it's gonna get you every time.
I can't remember how, but in the early noughties we came across Richard Yates and ever since we have hunted his books and read them feverishly. They are not so easy to find. It all began with Revolutionary Road, the novel (originally published in 1961). When the film Revolutionary Road was finally made in 2008, it felt to me like a personal secret of mine was being aired without asking for my consent. I was afraid of the novel not being well interpreted and I was scared that any criticism of the film would be devastating to the novel. I was also rejoicing, thinking Richard Yates will finally become a very famous and successful, (dead) writer. I guess he did not. The story was too painful and direct for the masses, even with the Titanic two on screen.
April and Frank Wheeler (Kate and Leo) are at the point in their life together, where the early courtship has ended and has been replaced by a new reality: a suburban marriage with two kids. The dreams they had, the sense of being different and special, their artistic aspiration have all been washed out of their routine lives in the 1950s American suburbia. This story begins where romantic comedies can never venture. It peeks behind the veil called 'happily ever after'. Generally, nobody wants to go there in fiction because they live there every day.
I still take this film personally, maybe more than ever. Now I am the same age with the main characters. I know what it means to argue over how possible 'another life in Paris' is. I look at my life and my friends and I refuse to see April Wheeler around. Yet I know the more I refuse the more likely she is going to rear her 1950s-dead-housewive's head and whisper something venomous in my ear. I will tell her: "April, if you lived now you could keep acting and realizing your dreams, you could get a job of some kind, you could matter outside of your house, you could divorce and have a legal abortion, you could really see the shrink too and not just talk about it."
Even still, Richard Yates punctures through the seeming changes for the better. If he was alive, he would smirk at my delusion while lighting yet another cigarette. Is life really a horrible trek through endless disappointments where happiness is only a moment, never a state? Has life been sold to us with false promises? Are people in the advertisement business the most evil of us all, because they sell us happiness and false hope? I cannot help but to think of Bill Hicks here: Hicks thought the messenger of the uncomfortable truth in America always gets whacked somehow. It certainly happened to Richard Yates, when nobody wanted to keep his books in press or buy them if they were available. Why is the truth always so quiet and undemanding?