In 1955, young-marrieds the Wheelers, Frank (DiCaprio) and April (Winslet), settle into stultifying suburbia but dream of reclaiming lives as free spirits. However, neighbours react to their getaway plan as a threat to world order. Will they break away or apart?
The adaptation of Richard Yates’ novel is understandably trumpeted as a high-class affair, of no little interest because it’s the first time Sam Mendes has directed his wife Kate Winslet. Most appealingly it reunites Titanic romantics Leonardo DiCaprio and Winslet. But people keen to reaffirm the transforming power of love may experience the desire to slash their wrists after this bleak drama in which love turns to loathing, defiance to tragedy. This is a denunciation of the American Dream as cruel charade, and a brutal vivisection of a marriage.
After a neat prologue of Frank and April falling in love, embodying the glamorous bohemian ideal of Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint, the story leaps about eight years to find they’ve turned out more like early sitcom archetypes, polished but trapped and unfulfilled. April’s acting aspirations are sunk in an am-dram production of The Petrified Forest, about which not even the cast’s embarrassed relations can find kind words. Her disappointment ignites a bitter rant at Frank, who urges his wife to talk about her feelings. This seems wildly uncharacteristic of an American male of the ’50s. (Or any man, anywhere, any time.) But talk through things they do, agreeing to sell up and start a new life in Paris, a notion their neighbours greet with incredulity.
Viewers of Emmy-winning series Mad Men will feel on familiar ground: men emerge from their cubicles to screw secretaries, swill martinis and catch the train back and forth to communities like the tidy Connecticut byway of Revolutionary Road, where happy faces are put on lives of quiet desperation. This is fertile soil for choice moments of observation and nuance, often visual rather than verbal. The most moving thing in the film is the on-top-form DiCaprio’s devastating physical reaction at a particular moment.
This is scarcely the first work to indict the cloying conformity of Eisenhower’s America. Contrasted with Britain of the ’50s, however, it looks like a fairyland of cool cars and cocktails. It is bolder in the aspect that is timeless: how people turn into what they didn’t expect or want. The supporting cast seize their moments in the fastidiously recreated milieu, with Kathy Bates divine as the busybody whose son returns from psychiatric hospital just long enough to hurl ugly insights at the Wheelers, and David Harbour and Kathryn Hahn are superb as next-door neighbours. But there’s the feel of a theatrical two-hander all dressed up here and, at times, smacking of artifice — it’s odd that Frank and April’s children have no presence in their home, appearing rarely, between the rampant sex and vicious recriminations.
April is kindred to Winslet’s frustrated housewife in Little Children but less sympathetic, written on one dissatisfied note when she isn’t excitedly exercising charming wiles. Winslet makes her vibrate with pained longing despite few clues as to who she really is and what she wants, beyond proof that she and her husband are special. Huge kudos to the cast, then, and to Mendes, not least for an absolutely inspired final shot.
Handsomely done and beautifully acted, just slightly wanting in a screenplay that leaves questions unanswered about whats behind these unhappy people. And its ultra-depressing...