Film Review | Sunday, 08 March 2009

Requiem for a dream

It takes a particular kind of director to weave poetry out of the mundane. It’s a difficult feat to pull off: already hard enough in literature (where the short masterpieces of Anton Chekhov and, more recently Raymond Carver reign supreme), it’s still less feasible in cinema, where spectacle reigns supreme. But British director Sam Mendes often rises up to the challenge, and with great success too. Being a veteran of the stage (having tackled the aforementioned Chekhov as well as the likes of Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard), it’s not surprising that he’s able to wring out the intricacies of human relationships with gusto. His breakthrough film was, of course, 1999’s American Beauty, which revealed an underbelly of neuroses lying in wait beneath the placid confines of suburbia. Revolutionary Road, an adaptation of the 1967 Richard Yates novel, does much of the same, but with less comedy. The niggling question is: do we really need it?

Set in Connecticut in 1955, the film reunites Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio for the first time since Titanic. They play April and Frank Wheeler, a couple who move to the ‘perky’ house on Revolutionary Road after getting married and having two children. April’s dreams of becoming an actress begin to fade, suffering a particularly harsh blow after she participates in an embarrassingly bad version of The Petrified Forest. Frank’s ambition to ‘just feel things’ is also on a downward spiral, as his marketing job at Knox Electronics appears to be making him number by the second. On Frank’s thirtieth birthday, April decides to re-ignite their dream of moving to Paris and starting a new life, where she would support Frank while he searches for his true vocation. But their idyllic getaway is complicated by new developments in both Frank’s career and their domestic life.

With a premise like this, unintentional humour would be an all-too-easy pitfall. Elevating the mundane to the level of sublime tragedy requires a deft hand. Mendes’ refined craftsmanship takes care of dignifying the subject matter. The shots are pitch-perfect. There’s no sign of flabbiness: a loveless sex scene in a car is shot from the back seat, the couple’s resigned anger is shot from the front. Mendes pitches the Wheelers’ mores as if he were directing a theatrical two-hander. This would usually run the risk of appearing jarring but it works perfectly here, allowing us to linger on and truly savour a marriage tearing at its seams. But it would be unfair to let Mendes take all the credit. The film is very much Kate and Leo’s, and it works masterfully as a complete rejection of their previous roles in Titanic. Their tragic transformation is convincing every step of the way, as they shift from idealistic to realistic to utterly destroyed. This is the first collaboration between Winslet and Mendes, and the husband-wife dynamic is proven to be more than just tokenistic. A single-shot monologue is particularly notable, as she strips the character down in an effortless display of conflicting emotions that essentially signal the death of a dream. DiCaprio’s constipated rage is also a joy to experience, it’s just too bad that he’s consistently hampered by his boyish looks.

But for all its devastating beauty, one can’t help the feeling that what Mendes has accomplished is little more than a haunting postcard, rather than the vivisection of a marriage and a society. It would be cruel to compare Revolutionary Road to American Beauty. Having your debut film win the main five Oscar gongs would undoubtedly give rise to ‘it’s all downhill from here’ kind of feelings. But considering the subject matter, it’s somewhat inescapable: if you’ve already tackled suburban mores in a contemporary setting, doing so in a period piece just looks regressive, comfortable even.

Nevertheless, Winslet and DiCaprio’s attempt to distance themselves from the role that made them both superstars of the screen is all too successful. Once the iconic couple for an entire generation, they’ve now helped create what is possibly the very antithesis of a date movie.

Actor profile: Leonardo DiCaprio

Born to bohemian parents, DiCaprio first kicked when his mother, Irmelin, was looking at a Da Vinci painting in Italy, thereby being named after the Renaissance master. Since then, he has starred in 22 feature films and boasts a total of 12 awards. Granted, one of them a is Razzie for The Man in the Iron Mask (worst screen couple), but it bears remembering that the Oscars took notice early on, since his performance as Johnny Depp’s mentally-challenged brother in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape garnered him his first nomination in 1993.

The young actor got started in adverts and television series, with bit parts in shows like The New Lassie, Roseanne and Growing Pains. His first feature film was distinctly schlocky, as he played Josh in the straight-to-video B-movie Critters 3, released in 1992. However, a proper breakthrough came in the following year, when he starred alongside Robert De Niro in This Boy’s Life. He reunited with the veteran actor in 1996’s Marvin’s Room. Significantly, thanks to his frequent collaborations with director Martin Scorcese (on projects like Gangs of New York and The Aviator), DiCaprio has been hailed as ‘the next DeNiro’ by many.

The collaboration was also instrumental in helping DiCaprio take a U-turn away from the ‘Leomania’ which had him pigeonholed as a heartthrob following the success of James Cameron’s Titanic in 1997, a position that was exacerbated by his starring role in Baz Luhrmann’s vibrant take on Shakespeare’s masterpiece, Romeo + Juliet, which was filmed in the previous year.

His next starring role will be in Shutter Island, an adaptation of a Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone) novel, also directed by Martin Scorcese and set for an October 2, 2009 release in America.

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