Having spent the last few years executive producing on projects as diverse as The Kite Runner and Starter for Ten, Sam Mendes resumes directorial duties this month with an adaptation of the acclaimed Richard Yates novel Revolutionary Road. And in doing so, he returns to what is arguably the setting of his greatest financial and critical success; disenchanted, suburban America. It's not hard to see what attracted him to the task of adapting this classic text, because the parallels between the lives of the Wheelers of Revolutionary Road and the Burnhams of American Beauty are clear. But instead of warring spouses slugging it out in the nineties, we find Kate Winslet and Leonardo Di Caprio living out their own particular brand of secrets and lies in fifties America.
Married young with two children and living in a picture postcard house in leafy Connecticut, the film explores April's increasing hopelessness with her lot, and in tandem, the web of deceit that Frank embarks upon to appease her. Di Caprio does a stellar job of bringing a difficult character to life. There's little to like about the conceited Frank, whose patronising air with his neighbours and work colleagues does little to endear him to the filmgoer. His shabby treatment of the typing pool secretary he beds behind his wife's back and his general air of superiority with almost every other character in the film distances him further. So it's testament to Di Caprio's characterisation that there are moments when you feel great sympathy for the emasculated Frank as he tries, in his own hubristic fashion, to do the right thing and be the type of husband his wife longs for.
In her desperation to escape the life she so detests, April convinces him that they should re-locate to Paris so he can 'find himself'. It's not difficult for her to convince her narcissistic spouse that he's too good for his current employers and for a time their relationship reaches a period of relative harmony as they both bask in the idea of their imagined life in Europe. But the truce is short lived and their marriage unravels with alarming speed and mutual resentment as Frank becomes unsure about the move following an offer of promotion, and April simultaneously discovers she's pregnant. Her subsequent reaction to these setbacks brings Revolutionary Road to its tragic conclusion.
It's not too sunny, but please don't be put off. There's much to like about this classy production. The score in particular is terrific. The mournful, bluesy tones of 'The Gypsy' by the Ink Spots open the film and set the mood perfectly. And the sets, with their Ercol furniture and retro styling evoke a memory of bygone America, when the dream was still alive and anything seemed possible. There are also some film-stealing turns by Michael Shannon as John Givings; the institutionalised son of their neighbour. Only on screen for about 15 minutes in total, the character's ability to see through the charade of the Wheeler's marriage despite his own considerable insanity makes for electrifying viewing.
On the downside the film doesn't sufficiently explore why April is so disillusioned. A greater back story wouldn't have gone amiss; it's hard to care about a character who just seems self indulgent and brittle. It's also difficult in the current economic climate to feel truly touched by their dissatisfaction in what they perceive to be their humdrum, middle-class lives.
Given the current thirst for a 'feel good' or ultimately uplifting tale (yes Slumdog, I mean you), the degeneration of their marriage and Winslet's portrayal of April's descent into despair doesn't fit into the current zeitgeist. You could say that this is a film you'll endure and admire rather than enjoy, such is the unremittingly bleak take on married life.