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Revolutionary Road

February 9, 2009

If – God forbid – Jack hadn’t died at the end of Titanic, he and Rose would have turned into Frank and April Wheeler.

Revolutionary Road, which reunites star-cross’d lovers Leonardo diCaprio and Kate Winslet for the first time in over ten years, is as far removed from James Cameron’s bloated doomed romance as it’s possible to get, and yet the similarities to that earlier blub-fest are striking.

Brought together in a brief pre-title sequence, Frank and April immediately latch on to a solipsistic need just justify the self-belief they have, despite no evidence to back it up. Forever certain (but of what?) they hook up, and for a brief time wow their friends into espousing the there’s-more-than-this lifestyle. Taking a drive out to the country to buy a house on Revolutionary Road, they smirk at each other as the Realtor tells them just how much she thinks they’ll like the house she has picked out for them. But what is behind the smirk? What actually is the shared ideal?

Of course, they buy…and Frank joins the militaristic-looking ranks of the grey army of workmen, all heading up to New York each morning; April becoming the perfect housewife and mother. Yet behind the picket fence the determination that they are somehow different persists, and it persists because the desperation that they might not be that unusual after all has begun to take hold.

April hatches a plan to de-camp to Paris (because…well, because it’s Paris, and because Frank has extolled its distant virtues for so long) but at the same time a promotion begins to wave at Frank from his work cubicle and the belief that they’re just the same as every other couple out in Big City Satelliteville starts to bite.

Reolutionary Road captures the thought-I’d-something-more-to-say hopelessness of fading dreams wonderfully. That other films have also tried and succeeded at deconstructing the suburban dream, might not mark this out as so unusual, but it’s the brilliance of the production that lifts this effort above the rest, and within that, the acting that is nothing less than perfect; April’s disillusionment with Frank is palpable, her despair at finding herself pregnant heartbreaking, and the realisation between them that their specialness was always a chimera and that they are waking up from a dream into a nightmare is – ultimately – devastating.

The film follows the book to the letter, and is tone perfect in capturing Frank and April and their comfortable horror. Both diCaprio and Winslet are alarmingly good, as I’ve said, and yet, yes, sometimes it is a stretch to actually care for the Wheelers. For sure, it is almost impossible to see the spark that April saw in Frank when they first met. Oh, he’s charming, but “the most fascinating person”? Any good will for him is lost with the early revelation of a brief and joyless infedlity, and he’s very quickly playing catch-up. For April we feel a little more deeply, although she comes across as needy and possibly a little too manipulative. When their unanalysed dreams are dissected effortlessly by a neighbour’s son, on day release from a mental institution, it may not quite create a sensation of schadenfreude, but there it seems deserved. In truth, this sequence is the one moment in the entire film that doesn’t ring quite true. In the book it is pivotal, spot on, touching; you can see why it has been included, but here there is possibly the whiff of expediency about it. The lunatic who speaks sense and throws much needed light onto an absurd situation is a well known cinematic tool, and to have the character ever so slightly over the top, turns the moment into one approaching disappointment.

But we are soon back on track, and as the desperation really kicks in, things spiral out of control and we stumble and tumble towards an ending that Jack and Rose, as precarious as they must have felt on the prow of that bloody ship, could never have imagined happening.

But it does. The ending is as depressing as Hell. The Hell of other people, which of course is the definition of the best horror. For all our lack of care for these people, it is easy to realise that, unfortunately, and as much as we’d probably not want to do so, we’d be lying if we said we didn’t recognise some of what they are. So, no, I didn’t care for Frank and April, but I’d have to admit there are all too many traces of both in me. And to put that up on the screen is frightening.

This is a terrific piece of work, just don’t expect a happy ending.

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