Saturday, February 14, 2009

Review - Revolutionary Road

Revolutionary Road is about many things – the stifling nature of suburban conformity, the way our real lives fail to match the lives we dream for ourselves – but above all, I think Sam Mendes' film is a cautionary tale on the dangers of the literary adaptation. This is as faithful a screen version of Richard Yates' 1961 novel as one could imagine; almost every scene plays out in the way readers would have visualised it when reading the book, and most of the dialogue has been lifted direct from the page and placed into the actors' mouths – but is it too faithful for its own good? Often, the best screen adaptations of novels are films that acknowledge the different requirements of two media and cut their cloth accordingly – look at the way The Sweet Hereafter or LA Confidential reshape plot details and characters to fit their script, while still staying true to the spirit of the book. A straighter approach only really works when the source material lacks the complexity that would make a verbatim adaptation difficult; as in the case of The Godfather, for example, when a pretty unsatisfying read is elevated by Coppola's classical filmmaking style, or No Country For Old Men, which is one of Cormac McCarthy's weakest works.

So where does that leave Revolutionary Road, an unimaginative adaptation of a great, complex and nuanced novel? Most of the time, it's an empty experience, following the book's blueprint to the letter without developing a personality of its own or attempting any kind of interpretation – the characters shout lines at each other with plenty of conviction, but the film is dead behind the eyes, and that's exactly where Yates' writing is at its most potent. So much of Revolutionary Road on the page takes place inside its characters' heads; the author delves deep into their inner selves, making us privy to their ideas, their desires, and their fears. This is something the novel form can do with much greater ease than cinema, and the challenges faced by screenwriter Justin Haythe are exposed before the title has even appeared on screen. Like the book, the film opens with a disastrous amateur production of The Petrified Forest in which April Wheeler (Kate Winslet) – who once had aspirations of being an actress – is the star. After the curtain has fallen, April dries her tears and puts on a brave face in the dressing room, when her husband Frank (Leonardo Di Caprio) enters and, after an anxious few moments, utters the line, "I guess it wasn't exactly a triumph or anything, was it?" In the novel, Yates builds up to that delivery with an analysis of Frank's thought process as he gropes for the right words, the perfect tone, hoping he can offer comfort to his wife while simultaneously blowing off the drama as nothing to fret about – but here we just get the line, and throughout Revolutionary Road that's all we get. The film only exists on the surface.

Of course, that surface is polished to a fine sheen. Sam Mendes always makes sure his films look good, but if you hire Conrad Hall and Roger Deakins to shoot your movie, as Mendes has in his four pictures to date, then you know you're going to get a handsome-looking film, and I don't think Mendes has any visual sense of his own to bring to the project. Every scene in the film is crafted to the point where there's not a hair out of place, but Mendes fails to do anything cinematically interesting with Revolutionary Road, and he frequently resorts to lazy clichés, such as Di Caprio getting lost in the mass of anonymously suited businessman as he goes to work. Never mind the stifling atmosphere of suburbia, the suffocating atmosphere of Sam Mendes' filmmaking style is the killer here, and I was relieved when Michael Shannon appeared as John Givings, the mentally unbalanced son of the Wheelers' neighbours, who is unafraid to share some uncomfortable truths with them. Shannon's performance feels less studied and more alive than any other in the picture, and for a few memorable sequences at least, he throws a welcome spanner into the director's over-fussy mise en scène.

In fact, the performances throughout the film are strong, if a little bloodless. Mendes' background as a theatre director makes him well suited to the kind of close-quarters quarrelling that so much of Revolutionary Road consists of, and his two stars – reunited for the first time since the Titanic went down – turn in admirable displays. Di Caprio is at his best in a brief middle section, when the Wheelers make plans for a new life in Paris, and he walks into the office with a sparkle in his eye and a fresh swagger in his step. In the film's more demanding moments, he sometimes comes off as a little too callow to convince, while he managing to nail Frank's creeping insecurity at other times – it's a frustratingly inconsistent turn. Opposite him, Winslet is as good as you'd expect given the lack of depth her character has been afforded in this version; she brings as much feeling and imagination that she can muster to April, but the performance is unavoidably one-note. Together, they have a lot of energy but no fire, and their arguments (their many, many arguments) grow increasingly shrill as the film rushes through the book's events while letting the complexities Yates so carefully cultivated slip through the cracks.

That's the perennial risk one takes when adapting a great novel. So much of what makes Revolutionary Road such a vividly powerful read comes from the author's incisive, honest voice, and how do you bring that to the cinema? Revolutionary Road can't match the authority of Yates' prose and it is too timid to shake the formula up, to revamp the novel for the big screen, so we are left with a skeleton of a story, which logs every occurrence in the narrative but has no soul. Of course, my disappointment with this film stems from my love of the book, but even if I hadn't read it, I doubt I would have found much to care for in this staid little drama – I imagine I would have found it cold, histrionic, baffling and very, very tiresome. In a recent interview to promote the film, Leonardo Di Caprio made the following statement: "...I read the book many times but I received the script first then got hold of the novel afterwards. What it did was answer a lot of questions for me; Justin Haythe’s adaptation was fantastic but there’s only so much a screenplay can tell you." – and that, I think, sums up the problem at the heart of Revolutionary Road. Great literature can become great cinema, but it will only prosper when handled by filmmakers who understand the difference.