Revolutionary Road

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 February, 2009, 12:00am

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Michael Shannon, Kathy Bates

Director: Sam Mendes

Category: IIB

It's perhaps ironic that Revolutionary Road is being released in Hong Kong just before Valentine's Day. Sam Mendes' adaptation of Richard Yates' 1961 novel about how a couple's relationship is wrenched asunder by pressures to conform to the mainstream values of 1950s America is a severe look at marital meltdown that's poignant throughout. The film is a sobering, even brutal dissection of middling middle-class life, offering insights into relationships as relevant today as when the book was written.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet (above) give barnstorming performances, and Michael Shannon delivers a stunning turn as the mentally ill neighbour who wrecks the couple's attempts to give their lives a facade of respectability. Revolutionary Road is an intense look at the painful ways a marriage unravels in post-war American suburbia. It is a land filled with individuals resorting to petty gossip and bourgeois yearnings when the pursuit of their ideals grinds to an unceremonious halt in cookie-cutter houses and daily commutes to dead-end jobs in the city.

Such is the case for Frank and April Wheeler (DiCaprio and Winslet), former bohemians exasperated by their humdrum existence in a world they feel is beneath them. The film's opening provides a vivid scene-setter that reveals the pair's aggravation towards their lives and each other. Adapting a truncated version of the first chapter in Yates' book, Mendes opens with a flashback showing how the pair first met before returning audiences (and Frank, who's the one doing the reminiscing) to the present, when the couple meet backstage after a disastrous theatre performance in which April plays the lead. Frank's attempts to offer solace to the traumatised April go awry, they leave in stony silence, and everything finally implodes on the way home as they destroy each other with poisonous tirades.

This sequence paves the way for two hours of all-out war between the Wheelers. A glimmer of hope does, however, appear after that initial skirmish, when April suggests relocating the whole family to Paris and starting anew. Buoyed by the possibility of an escape to supposedly greener pastures, their relationship improves. But things spiral downwards again when Frank's fears of the unknown hurl the couple back to where they began, and to a nearly inevitable and tragic denouement that's galling but all too realistic.

Just as Shannon's John Givings says, it 'takes real guts to see the hopelessness' of that meaningless suburban experience in the so-called 'Age of Anxiety'. Although he often makes pompous proclamations about the 'emptiness' of the lives around him, Frank's fall into complacency marks him as another cocooned individual refusing to confront the dead-end nature of his existence. April does, however, and pays the price.

Adapting Yates' novel for the screen was never going to be easy. The challenge was making a two-hour film that does justice to a book that relies on characters' psyches through detailed descriptions of inner emotions and small physical gestures. To his credit, Mendes made wise choices in what he took from the book. The way he tackles the film retains and even heightens the claustrophobia that defines the original story. But there's only so much mise-en-scene can do for the material - and it's here that DiCaprio and Winslet's brilliance comes into its own. Their performances are masterful and the chemistry between them makes the unease and eventual loathing between the Wheelers disturbingly genuine. Winslet's turn as the poised April is a marvel in itself; just the scenes in which she recoils into herself - directing her angst and fury inwards rather than out - are deserving of the highest acting plaudits.

Revolutionary Road opens today