Review by Jane Freebury
Since the 1950s became a byword for stifling conformity, there have been so many movie references to that unfortunate decade that nothing, not even rock and roll or Presley’s pelvic gyrations, can rehabilitate it. Now here is the film adaptation of a novel that must have had a bit part at least in giving the decade a bad name.
Revolutionary Road is a stark and strong film, based on a novel by Richard Yates that was published early in 1961, a year after the contraceptive pill was approved for use in the US. In two years, Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique would find its way to housewives’ bedside tables as second wave feminism began to get going.
British director Sam Mendes (Jarhead, Road to Perdition) has shown a bit of a penchant for exploring the underside of American society since his brilliant first film American Beauty. In Revolutionary Road we have returned to the burbs where novelist Yates believed the brave revolutionary spirit of the American War of Independence had come to a dead end.
Something of a cliché, but then Yates’ book would have been among the first to say it.
At issue is the plight of the Wheelers, a golden couple, full of promise, who have settled down in comfortable suburbia and had a family. April (Kate Winslet) and Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) had imagined they were different, special even, compared to the suburbanites around them, but the film mercilessly peels this protective layer away.
Despite his promise, Frank is just another business suit who works in a cubicle 9 to 5, and despite her aspirations to act, April has become another housefrau standing at the sink in apron and heels, peeling potatoes.
With its conservative editing and long takes, Revolutionary Road reflects the aesthetic of the time, though fifties’ melodramas were full of vibrant colour, even where lives were dull. Here the muted palette of beige, pale grey and off-white underlines the point that lives have failed to bloom.
I don’t think this intense study of two people in free fall has the same raw power the original book would have had in 1961. Mendes’ baleful tale of American society is handsomely mounted and lead performances are strong, but other recent films set in the same time and place, films like Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm and Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven, have added further dimensions to the cliché of bored housewives and frustrated husbands. Revolutionary Road would have done better not to stick to the bare essentials.
In a capsule: In 1950s style, a film about a golden couple in post-war suburbia, whose marriage implodes. A handsome, stark tale with strong performances from Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, but it adds little new to the suburban cliché of bored housewives and frustrated husbands.