With Revolutionary Road, director Sam Mendes returns to the territory in which he made his name in film: the polished surfaces and angst-ridden interiors of picket-fenced suburbia. Unlike 1999’s American Beauty though, this film depicts the dark side of the American dream when it was ostensibly at its shiny newest, with protagonists Frank and April Wheeler buying into the clapboard house, Chevy and 2.5 children package in the golden age of the mid-Fifties.
The film is adapted from Richard Yates’ highly acclaimed novel of the same name, itself written as early as 1961. Having introduced April and Frank as city-based drama student and ambitious returned soldier respectively, it quickly displaces them into their ‘married with children’ roles a notable seven years later.
April is trying to revive her acting ambitions, to embarrassing effect, at the local am-dram, while Frank’s extramarital activities suggest he also finds something lacking in his cubicle-based, commuter lifestyle. No sooner has this scene been set than his wife is suggesting a move from the suburbs to Paris, where – as he relates in flashback – Frank enjoyed his most liberated and fulfilling days during the war.
After a moment’s incredulity, Frank is on board with the idea, which will see April working as a well-paid government secretary while he ‘takes some time’ and works out what he really wants to do. The promise of this new life injects waves of youthful euphoria and romance into their daily existence, and for a while only they (and the story’s rather dated psychiatric patient) have the sense to see what is really important in life.
Without the benefit of having read the book, it is easy to go along with the pair’s apparent reasoning both in agreeing the move and, as circumstances change, becoming polarised about its feasibility. Kate Winslet and Leonardo de Caprio inhabit the roles with heart-wrenching convincingness, and the viewer is swept along by their emotional peaks and troughs – and Thomas Newman’s majestic yet sombre score – throughout the two-hour running time.
But the briefest of discussions with my escort, who had finished the novel that day, made me realise how little I actually knew about what was driving them, and the sudden sea-changes in their relationship. Of course a film can never convey its characters’ internal dialogue as effectively as a book has the potential to, and to his credit screenwriter Justin Haythe avoids voiceover or excessive explanatory dialogue to make sense of the couple’s shifting motivations, but the result is a lingering sense of scepticism about their behaviour which, I am told, is not prompted by Yates’s original narrative.
Winslet’s April is the dominant player in the film, as well as in the marriage it depicts. Addressing her frustration and disappointment seems to be the main goal behind the plan to emigrate, which she doggedly pursues in the face of ever-increasing obstacles.
In comparison, Frank’s sense of inadequacy and emasculation – apparently key to the original storyline – are underplayed as driving forces, and through no fault of de Caprio’s the character lacks depth as a consequence. Whether any skewed impression of whom the move to Paris is designed to fulfil relates to Winslet’s husband being in the director’s chair, we can only wonder.