5.03.2016

From the archives: "Intimate marital rage"


Writing about Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road in February of 2009 I tried to assess the performances by Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, who were being pushed for awards consideration, as was the film itself.  That campaign ended with a fizzle; the movie was ultimately too bleak to gain much traction.  Winslet changed horses mid-stream and rode The Reader to an Oscar win.  Her performance here was the superior one, but films about women who die after performing abortions on themselves generally do not do well with Academy voters.  In its commitment to capturing the utter hopelessness of Yates’ novel, the film was perhaps doomed from the beginning.  

Kate Winslet in Revolutionary Road.

“Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet reunite for the first time in eleven years as a married couple trapped in claustrophobic 1950s suburbia. It’s like Titanic, only they crash into a little white house with a green lawn instead of an iceberg. […] This is a despairing, disturbing film—one that, like Yates’ novel, presents us with scenes of intimate marital rage that make our stomachs queasy, and then presents us with more, and more, until we’re almost numb with them. I was relieved to see Mendes stay true to Yates’ despairing vision and not cop out with a cheap ending.

And yet the film left me a little cold, and hollow—as the novel does, but in a different way. The material here is tricky, and Mendes sometimes can’t get a good handle on it; very often, when confronted with a dramatic moment or a confrontation, he plays it too broadly. Most of Frank and April’s intensely fueled arguments—especially the first one, which is a doozy—are over-the-top, too much.  DiCaprio, especially, has a hard time holding back here; he’s finally grown into a solid actor, and he does well here, but he often misses the subtle nuances of his lines and resorts to shouting in a too-articulate voice. […] Very often Mendes directs DiCaprio and Winslet in such a way that they hit their crescendo early and then must remain at that pitch for the next three minutes. The arguments might have contained a wider variety of notes and chords, building and modulating carefully instead of always blaring at us at full volume.

All grown up: DiCaprio in Revolutionary Road.  I wrote that "watching DiCaprio, vaguely paunchy in his gray flannel suit, it’s as though his boyish youthfulness has vanished overnight."

I mention the scenes between Winslet and DiCaprio because they are the lifeblood of the film, which charts the slow and inevitable death of their disappointed marriage. It falls apart in a series of humiliations—quiet failures, cheap infidelities, violent confrontations—that April and Frank move through as though they were stations of the cross. Their frustrations and resentments bubble seethingly under the surface until they explode in all their ugliness. Winslet does some remarkable acting here; her performance is more carefully modulated than DiCaprio’s, especially toward the end of the film, as her desperation threatens to send her over the edge of sanity. […] This is perhaps not the best performance of Winslet’s career, but it’s certainly one of her strongest in recent memory, and it’s a potent reminder of her astonishing power as an actress—her ability to channel not only the poise and refinement so often associated with British actors but also a real visceral, bodily power. (Winslet’s talent as an immensely physical actor is often underrated.)”

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