“Revolutionary Road” is a very good bigscreen adaptation of an outstanding American novel — faithful, intelligent, admirably acted, superbly shot. It also offers a near-perfect case study of the ways in which film is incapable of capturing certain crucial literary qualities, in this case the very things that elevate the book from being a merely insightful study of a deteriorating marriage into a remarkable one. Sam Mendes’ fourth feature reps what many people look for in the realm of serious, grown-up, thoughtful film fare and, led by the powerful performances of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, teaming for the first time since “Titanic,” Paramount Vantage should be able to push this sad tale to a potent commercial career among discriminating audiences.
In addition to being compared with Richard Yates’ 1961 novel, which thwarted previous aspiring adapters and has enjoyed a persistent following over the years, the film will conjure up two other comparisons — to the TV series “Mad Men,” which is set in the same general period and shares a focus on hard-smoking, hard-drinking New York commuters and their women, and Mendes’ own “American Beauty,” a similarly critical but far more theatrical look at the underside of the suburban American dream.
Screenplay by Justin Haythe (“The Clearing”) scrupulously adheres to the structure, personalities, perspectives and much of the dialogue of the novel as it examines the heartbreaking schism in the relationship between Frank and April Wheeler (DiCaprio and Winslet), a strikingly handsome couple who buy into the postwar convention of abandoning the city and raising two kids in a picture-perfect Connecticut suburb while Frank commutes to his unchallenging job at a large business-machines corporation in Manhattan.
Stuck at home, and with the far more acute set of emotional antennae, April is the first to identify the “trap” of their lives, and soon proposes they chuck it all and move to Paris, where she proposes to support the family while Frank endeavors to find himself. “This is our one chance,” April stresses, and it doesn’t take long for Frank, who would seem to have a latent bohemian in him, to agree. Questioned as to why they’d want to make such a drastic move, Frank replies, with a glancing hint of ironic humor, “We’re running from the hopeless emptiness of the life here.”
Literature, movies and social commentary have all been down this road many times before, stressing the conformism of ’50s upper-middle-class life, the emotional sterility of the suburbs, the hypocrisy of attitudes, the sexism, et al. What keeps all these too routinely accepted views safely in the background here is the stinging emotional truth that courses through the novel and, to a significant extent, the film, thanks especially to the electric, fully invested performances by the two leads. Frank and April are like a 20-years-younger George and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” who have yet to achieve an unstated equilibrium in their epic tug of war.
One youthful advantage they still enjoy is a simmering amorous relationship. Sad to say, this doesn’t prevent Frank from having an office fling with a very available secretary, Maureen (Zoe Kazan), as a 30th birthday present to himself. Incidental as the interlude is, the brief affair serves as a cogent illustration of how the film conveys only a fraction of the nuances and layers of the book.
In the film, it appears Frank makes his move on an almost arbitrary impulse, and he’s made to look bad in the typically chauvinistic way he uses his superior position to seduce a powerless young woman. On the page, the two already have a history marked by a long mutual flirtation, and Maureen is described as sexier and less frumpy than the woman who turns up onscreen. Frank may be a cad either way, but in the novel, his cheating involves an array of ambiguous feelings on both sides — anticipation, hesitation, delight, remorse, Frank’s subsequent temptation to confess — while in the film it registers only one meaning: naughty boy.
With one notable exception toward the end, Haythe and Mendes capture the primal emotional and thematic points of the book as they try to find a cinematic way to express the subtext of Yates’ prose, which most distinguishes itself through the precise expressions of minute changes in emotion, attitude and thought — what might he say, what should she say, what does he feel, what’s she really thinking, how did he and she react at the same moment? Even when the dramatic temperature is cranked up to high, the picture’s underpinnings seem only partly present, to the point where one suspects that what it’s reaching for dramatically might be all but unattainable — perhaps approachable only by Pinter at his peak.
That said, “Revolutionary Road” is constantly engrossing, as it successfully engages the Wheelers’ yearning to rescue themselves from their decorous, socially acceptable oblivion, just as it clearly defines how the “trap” is stronger than they are. The rows, tender moments and downtime in between are fully inhabited and powerfully charged by DiCaprio and Winslet. For his part, DiCaprio often achieves the kind of double register the film as a whole less consistently captures, as he indicates Frank’s thought process in the split second before he decides what to say. At certain moments, the conjoined cerebral and emotional aspects of his characterization summon the spirit of Jack Nicholson’s breakthrough performances around the time of “Five Easy Pieces.”
Winslet’s perf is less surprising, perhaps, if only because she has shown tremendous range throughout her career. April is a difficult role in that her mood changes sometimes seem inexplicable, but the thesp makes them all seem genuine, which resonates with Frank’s occasional hints that she’s possibly in need of psychiatric help. Winslet’s starkly etched April is steely, strong and brittle, capable of great highs and lows as well as massive uncertainty.
Pic’s startling supporting turn comes from Michael Shannon, who’s mesmerizing as the clinically insane son of local realtor and busybody Helen Givings (Kathy Bates). He’s a loony who is able to tell the truth about the Wheelers that everyone else so politely avoids; when Shannon is onscreen, it’s impossible to watch anyone else. The limited roster of supporting players has been expertly cast, and the thesps deliver accordingly, notably Bates, Richard Easton as her conveniently hard-of-hearing husband and David Harbour and Kathryn Hahn as the Wheeler’s small-horizons neighbors.
Kristi Zea’s production design meshes with location work in Connecticut and Gotham to produce a vivid but unstressed sense of 1955. As ever, cinematographer Roger Deakins makes everyone — the designers, actors, director, gardener, manicurist, you name it — look even better than they do on their own. Thomas Newman’s score, defined as it is by very simple three-note progressions, plays into the desired mood but grows repetitive.