The first row begins only five minutes into the movie, and they become set pieces at persistent intervals. They are not as ‘bad’ as Richard Burton’s and Elizabeth Taylor’s magnificent arguments in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’, but they are certainly just as well acted, despite Kate’s and Leo’s characters lacking the depth and sophistication of those of Burton and Taylor.
Kate and Leo are April and Frank Wheeler, a handsome couple in 1950s America, living the dream in the Connecticut burbs. Whilst Frank works in New York City, April becomes a slowly despairing housewife whose dreams of a more fulfilling life are slowly eroded.
For April and Frank have plans to run away from what they tell John, an acquaintance, is “the hopeless emptiness of the whole life here.” John perceptively replies, “People are on to the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness.” Later, when their plans change, John will accuse Frank of being “too comfy” in his hopeless emptiness. (Sound familiar? I guess we are all too comfortable in our daily grind.) Meanwhile Kate feels that life in the burbs is draining her vitality.
It’s an excellent subject for a film, of course, how we are seduced by the prospect of more money to blind ourselves from the pointlessness of earning it. But this film surprisingly, despite all the arguments and traumas contained therein, lacks bite. It has become here an everyday story of an everyday existence. A reviewer in ‘Philosophy Now’ made great play of the existential core of the movie, but existentialism is the essence of the quotidian. It’s all well done, of course, and the acting is faultless.
But when compared to another Kate Winslet film of that year, ‘The Reader’, or to the director’s earlier masterpiece, ‘American Beauty’, we can see what is missing from the heart of ‘Revolutionary Road’, and that is tragedy. It is there, of course, but merely latent and undeveloped, or rather it is misplaced or even lost in the edit. In short, and without giving the plot away, the film should have ended at 1:42 – or 1:44 at the latest. Then, maybe, it might have been worth four stars, but the rest of the film after these timings simply supplies an anticlimax, robbing the story of any tragic denouement that the viewer can mull over when they leave the cinema – or leave the living room to make that essential cup of tea.
But even so, the film has a mountain to climb because we do not come to love Frank or April Wheeler as we come to love Lester Burnham of ‘American Beauty’. Frank and April come across as beautiful but largely empty people. Sure they have dreams, but they are indistinct; they are the negative dreams of escape rather than the positive dreams of action and intent. They appear to have no interests, not even the most empty-headed hobbies of their class and era such as golf or flower arranging. They are sad and empty people and we thus find it difficult to relate to any sense of tragedy in their lives.
As in that earlier Sam Mendes’s film, the soundtrack is provided by Thomas Newman. In ‘Revolutionary Road’ he equals the high standards of the former movie by here employing a haunting three-note figure that is subtly moulded and transformed depending on the atmosphere of the scene.
The commentary in the extras is provided by director Sam Mendes (who was at the time married to Kate Winslet) and screenwriter Justin Haythe. They talk much about the book and the differences between it and the final script. They concede that this is a dark film that was never going to be popular. They also saw the house as a character in its own right, first becoming a symbol of freedom but gradually over time becoming Kate’s prison. Finally, Mendes points out the visual ‘Titanic’ joke that is half-hidden in the film. Other extras on my DVD include ten minutes of deleted scenes and a thirty-minute ‘making of’ documentary.