Two literary TV shows I’m excited about in 2012

Parade’s End

Ford Madox Ford has not yet made it from the to-read list to my eyeballs, but from what I’ve heard, he’s magnificent. That’s one reason I’m excited about the BBC/HBO co-production of Parade’s End, based on Ford’s 1920s four-part novel about a complex relationship and the madness of war (and undoubtedly much more).

The second reason is that the show has been scripted by none other than Tom Stoppard, playwright (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead), screenwriter (including of one of my favourite films, Brazil), and complete legend. What’s even better is that he told us at The Wheeler Centre event last year he was enjoying the production of the show. ‘I don’t normally hang around [film sets] but in the case of this one I became very obsessed with it,’ he said. ‘I just wanted to be there.’

You probably don’t need any more reasons to tune in, but I’ll give you two more: Benedict Cumberbatch; and, obviously, a detailed period setting. I do love being immersed in the past. Oh, and the director is Susanna White (BBC’s Bleak House and Jane Eyre) and the show will feature a great cast of British actors.

The show is due at the end of the year. More at the Independent, here.

The picture above is the first one released by the BBC (via). If you see any more, tweet me!

Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries

I just raced through the first Phryne Fisher book, Cocaine Blues, by Kerry Greenwood, and it was a great deal of fun. The books (and the show) are set in Melbourne in the 1920s. Phryne is a wealthy, brassy and adventurous detective. She was born into poverty so she is not blinded by her wealth (though she has a fine time with it). There are plenty of interesting female characters, like her maid Dot, and Dr Macmillan (a Scot who wears trousers *gasp*).

The book had me looking up a lot of the locations and I’m excited to see how they’ll capture 1920s Melbourne. Not to mention the great costumes. Phryne is played by Essie Davis, who was recently in The Slap. I think she’s perfect for the role of Phryne.

Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries starts on ABC1 on Friday 24 Feb at 8:30. See the official Phryne Fisher website here for more details, and a preview of episode one. The books are readily available.

Aside: The Picture of Dorian Gray 1945

Aside

Watched the 1945 The Picture of Dorian Gray (dir. Albert Lewin) last night and experienced a kind of aesthetic angst when Dorian (Hurd Hatfield) first came on screen. I wanted him to take my breath away. ‘I have the simplest tastes. I am always satisfied with the best,’ said Oscar Wilde. Well, I had simply imagined Dorian as being more striking. ‘Handsomeness’ is terribly subjective, but this is not the only place where a film version of DG falls down (for me). There is the portrait itself. Gruesomeness is also subjective.

Finally, those Wildean witticisms, so pleasurable to read, made for a very over-the-top screenplay. It also meant that Lord Henry Wotton (George Sanders) spoke so quickly I could barely hear what he was saying.

But the film is still enjoyable. The sets, in particular, are dramatic and engaging. And Angela Lansbury continues to delight me as a young actress (growing up, I always knew her as the perfect older one).

I read Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray as part of my ongoing 20 classics project. You can find that post here.

Dorian Gray pic via | Sybil Vane pic via 

Read and Seen: Watchmen

The second simultaneous book and film review by LiteraryMinded’s Angela Meyer and Celluloid Tongue’s Gerard Elson.

watchmenWatchmen, Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons
(1986, DC Comics, 9781401222666 - Aus, US)
Angela says…

Reading a graphic novel is an experience already half-way between literature and film. The opening ‘frames’ of Watchmen are like a series of shots from moving cameras, with the ‘voiceover’ of a character we will soon come to know, Rorschach. Immediately, the picture of this world is grim, skeptical and bleak – ‘…now the whole world stands on the brink, staring down into bloody hell, all those liberals and intellectuals and smooth-talkers’. His words here and throughout remind me somewhat of Taxi Driver’s malcontented, morally and politically ambiguous Travis Bickle.

Rorschach (whose guise is indeed a transforming inkblot image) is one of the few remaining active masked vigilantes in a city that outlawed their activity via the ‘Keene Act’ in 1977. The vigilantes are introduced soon into the story, after the Comedian is murdered at the beginning. Rorschach suspects a conspiracy against masked vigilantes, and that someone is picking them off, one by one. Each chapter gives the reader a detailed background of one character, while keeping the present action rolling – exiles to other planets, love and deception, more deaths, secrets revealed from checkered pasts; and what the washed-up superheroes do with their outfits, their ships, their basements, their spare time, money and their minds. The story is rich and full at the time of writing I predict the cinema version will have nowhere near the amount of detail contained within the pages.

The format of the book is also interesting – along with each chapter is an informative/interesting fragment from the world of the story – such as an extract from the original ‘Night Owl’ Hollis Mason’s biography Under the Hood; sections from a right-wing newspaper running stories on the vigilantes being the only hope against ‘Red Armageddon’; extracts from the new Nite Owl’s ornithological articles, and so on. The book is set in 1980s New York, an alternate Cold War era, and the characters are all uncomfortably ambiguous in terms of what they stand for, and how they stand for it. Most are far, far darker than the dark knight, Batman. Skewed notions of justice, righteousness, peace and anarchy are all brought to the fore, but not so much engaged with or ‘solved’ – merely presented to the reader. It makes for compelling, but uncomfortable reading. I’m not sure I was rooting for anyone – what drew me on was the compulsion to know more about their motivations, to see if my fears would be confirmed, to find out if there was any hope.

And I was completely gutted by the ending.

I must mention some other points of interest. The character of Jon, or Dr Manhattan, recreates his own molecular structure after a radioactive accident (his father was a watchmaker, it all makes suspended-imagination-sense). What I enjoyed about his chapter (Chaper IV) was the way he introduced his awareness of non-linear time. This is always something that has fascinated me. And as his story is recounted, the panels change between past, present, and even future – ‘Perhaps the world is not made. Perhaps nothing is made. Perhaps it simply is, has been, will always be there.’ And everything that is revealed about the characters, and the different (and distant) ways they view life, time, the world, and humanity will have relevance in the final pages.

One last point of interest, and I seriously wonder if this can be translated to film, is the scenes which have a newspaper vendor waxing lyrical about the state of the world to customers, to the air, to the unseen reader. While he talks (and talks) and doesn’t get through to anyone (it’s oh so bleak), a young man reads a comic book beside him. As he reads, parts of this seafaring story are relayed simultaneously, with the vendor’s rants. In some ways, the two characters are beside each other, and attempting to find out the same things on different levels, through different mediums. Then in their one chance for connection, the vendor is misunderstood, and it is missed. The streets become filled with fighting – people turning against each other – people misunderstanding each other’s personal struggles and personal values – and soon the streets are filled with much worse.

One thing that irked me was a definite lack in developed female characters. The females are all clichéd caricatures – sexually and emotionally vulnerable (or else lesbian) – which is a real shame. But, it’s not as though any of the male characters are truly rounded anyway. Their detailed backgrounds conveniently explain every tic, but by the end, it’s an outcome of competing concepts. The only character who felt three-dimensional to me was Rorschach, but I’m not sure if this is a subjective, comparative, recognition of aspects of the drawn character, or that he was written with more depth by Alan Moore. Much of the writing and dialogue is also bordering on corny – the laments about the scum of the earth and a dying world etc. – a little clunky, but nonetheless relevant to the overall themes.

The above points are not at all to say I didn’t enjoy the book – it was compelling and darkly entertaining all the way through. The story is rich, and most definitely resonant. The drawings by Dave Gibbons are really spectacular and remind me to read more graphic fiction. I would also recommend Alan Moore’s V For Vendetta (which you may also have seen the film of).

rorschach21Watchmen
(directed by Zack Snyder, screenplay by David Hayter & Alex Tse, 2009 – now on DVD/blu-ray)
Gerard says…

USA, 1985: With the nation on the precipice of nuclear war with the Soviets (the protracted Cold War about to turn hot), and Richard Nixon still in office, nervy finger on the button, America’s in the direst of straits. The costumed avengers who once marshalled the streets are long outlawed and now out of action, returned, for the most, to lives of anonymity, left to watch impotently on as society devours itself. And the world’s sole honest-to-godliness super-powered miracle-man – at once both national security policy and walking WMD - is growing increasingly apathetic to the plights of humanity; the existence of life is a highly overrated phenomenon to the indestructible inhabitant of a quantum universe, after all.

Welcome to the darkly imagined world of Watchmen, arguably comicdom’s most analogous offering – in both esteem and complexity – to the meticulously weaved intricacies of The Lord of the Rings. Much like Tolkien’s sturdy tome pre-Kiwi can-do, writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons’ ambitious fusion of superhero subversion and societal treatise had long borne the branding ‘unfilmable,’ with an enviable inventory of Hollywood hit-men left vexed and perplexed in its wake. Enter Zack Snyder, geek auteur du jour, who proved keenly attuned to the idiom of the medium with his operatically absurd/deliriously enjoyable big-screen mounting of Frank Miller’s 300. Now, credit first where credit’s due: that Snyder’s Watchmen even made it to cinemas is alone nothing short of a coup, the relative novice succeeding where many more seasoned (and venerated) reputations had failed, having joined the grumbling Moore, slighted by cinema’s high-profile muck-ups of his works in the past, in his unswerving belief that his serpentine opus is a tale tailor-made for exclusive existence on the panelled page. Yet film the unfilmable Snyder has, and cause for greater celebration is the simple truth that Watchmen is far from the unintelligible mess it so easily could have been. In fact, the filmmaker has shown a fanatic’s reverence for his source, shepherding Moore’s blockbuster-unfriendly ideas into multiplexes relatively intact, and Watchmen stands cowled head and caped shoulders above expectations.

When thoroughly distilled, at Watchmen‘s heart beats the jigsawed intrigue of a noir-ish whodunit. A mask’s been murdered - the cigar-chomping misogynist, The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), one of the few vigilantes left active by engaging in government-sanctioned political subterfuge. Pitilessly pummelled to within an inch of his life before being dealt a spectacular death by defenestration, it’s not long before the city’s lone still-illegally-practicing disguised gumshoe, Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), arrives at the scene to investigate and the murky shadows of conspiracy start to rise all around.

Though as with Watchmen in print, this isn’t that simple, with Snyder and scripters David Hayter and Alex Tse boldly shunning the acute narrative streamlining of the more-or-less successfully Moore-sourced V for Vendetta and making an admirable effort to allow ample exploration of their colourful cast’s spider-webbed geneses and individual backstories. So there’s Dan Dreiberg, AKA Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), mild-mannered Clarke Kent-alike, with his inability to get it up unless garbed in his now-closeted costume; Laurie Jupiter, alias Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), former torch-carrying stiletto-filler for mother, Sally, the original Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino), herself a crimefighter cum pinup babe back in the roarin’ ’40s; Adrian Veidt, or Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), pinnacle of Aryan perfection and self-styled ‘Smartest Man in the World’; and cerulean super-being, Dr Mahattan (Billy Crudup), atomic age danger made manifest and boyfriend of Laurie – not to mention particle-manipulating straddler of his own concurrent personal timelines. 

It sounds like a lot to swallow, but Snyder brings neophytes swiftly up to speed with an ingenious opening credits montage set to Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’, presenting a crash course in Watchmen‘s alternate history in which costumed heroes have had a hand in momentous modern American – and indeed, world – events; iconography re-dressed in spandex. But from here, Snyder ditches the neighbourly concern for the unconverted and launches into a no-punches-pulled, near blow-for-blow rendering of the meat and potatoes of most heavily lauded graphic novel of all time, which, despite its estimable exertion to realign the kapow-to-character ratio in support of the latter, still feels perversely snipped short at 162 minutes. In this theatrical cut (we’re promised two lengthier iterations further down the line), it should be clear to aficionado and virgin alike where the pruning’s occurred, for, after the leisurely measure at which Watchmen develops its first two acts, the dash it makes for the finish feels all the swifter by compare. But even the most ardent of purists should find no cause for lament in the film’s skilfully reworked finale, which – fans will note – plays out sans calamari but to equally conflicting effect, managing both organic thematic and narrative culmination whilst providing the period setting a welcome jolt of immediacy by tapping into the contemporary fears of the zeitgeist. 

If you’re starting to feel Snyder’s proved himself up to the task, you’re certainly not far off the mark, though the director’s stylistic tics might have been better left checked at the door, as the self-conscious showiness of his ‘mid-shot ramping-then-decelerating frame rate’ routine is here both intrusive and counterintuitive; to sex up the violence of Watchmen is to negate its purpose – it’s hard to feel appalled whilst thinking ‘Gee, whiz!’. Thankfully, it’s a gimmick the filmmaker keeps on a fairly tight chain, trotting it out only so often enough as to re-rouse those attentions attendant in hopes of a high-octane serving of superheroics from the man who made a limb-lopping ballet of the Battle of Thermopylae, using his God-given aptitude for ocular opulence to sugar the pill of Moore’s cynicism for the folk in the cheap seats. 

Of equally varying success are the tunes Snyder lays down on the soundtrack, which careen wildly from the dubious (witness a behemoth Dr Manhattan stride the Vietnam warfields to ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ and think only of Apocalyspe Now; watch two Watchpersons’ nigh-on gratuitous induction to the mile high club advance on the cringe-worthy as they tenderly boff to the strains of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’), to the flat-out inspired (Philip Glass’ suitably sci-fi sounding ‘Pruit Igoe & Prophecies’ is the pitch-perfect accompaniment to Manhattan’s origin-exposing Martian sojourn; a violent riot’s lent irony by KC & The Sunshine Band as The Comedian struts his stuff to the funk of ‘I’m Your Boogie Man’), with the more triumphant inclusions going some length to atone for Tyler Bates’ wearily perfunctory score. Crucially, Snyder’s knack for filling a role is much more reliable, Watchmen‘s casting perhaps its strongest suit. Best of the bunch are an emotionally aloof mo-capped Billy Crudup, letting it all hang out as the faultlessly-sculpted blue demigod, a va-va-vooming Gugino as the sexy Silk Spectre (a vision in girdle and garters), and, second to none, Earle Haley as Rorschach, the film’s hardnosed and stiff-tongued morally unflinching epicentre. His masked face an oscillating inkblot symbolic of the tumult inside, the actor’s guttural growlings the aural equivalent of Gibbons’ squigglingly-scrawled comicbook word balloons, if the character doesn’t come off as alarmingly bigoted as he is on the page, blame the script: Earle Haley is Rorschach.

Definitive judgement’s reserved for the Ultimate Extended Collector’s Edition, in which Snyder will presumably reinsert as many of the experience-enhancing and here-jettisoned subplots as he was able get away with arranging before cameras, but, taken as is, this is a graphically spectacular and staggeringly faithful translation from celebrated page to screen. Akerman’s acting chops may falter, critical plotlines might feel shortchanged, and we’re never quite given enough of Dean Morgan’s brilliant embodiment of The Comedian, but the sheer conceptual density and the filmmaker’s tightly-packed frames will ensure return viewers are richly rewarded. This is blockbuster moviemaking with a capital ‘Ballsy’ – and Synder’s to be commended for erring on the side of fidelity to the book.

And of Moore’s sour promise to never sit down for a viewing of the most loyal take on his work yet put to screen? Ask Snyder and he’ll likely borrow a line from Watchmen‘s most despicable realist: ‘Bitter? Fuck no – I think it’s hilarious!’

Angela’s post-film notes… 

Watchmen worked as a film. Two highlights for me were the casting and the soundtrack. Music is one of the only things literature can’t do, and in most parts the choice of classic songs (it was almost the soundtrack for Easy Rider) had mega impact, and often humour. Only a few times were the choices slightly off, and the score for the film itself was unremarkable – nothing like the moody, memorable soundtrack of The Dark Knight. Rorschach, The Nite Owl, Dr Manhattan and most other characters were perfectly cast – giving suitable voice and expression to their individual tics. I still haven’t gotten over the fact that I find Nite Owl so incredibly attractive (sensitivity/awkwardness with whiff of danger/toughness? – but then I hate his weakness also!). Silk Spectre was a little young, and her character just as one-dimensional as in the book. I have more to say on one other character but it could give away the ending, so I won’t. It was an entertaining ride – the opening and credit sequence gave me chills (I’m sure Gerard has described in detail). All fans of the book will agree that it is a shame a few things/characters were shunted, but you can understand why for narrative’s sake. The extended cut on DVD will be much richer for those who have read the novel. Ultra-violence and nudie scenes bordered on schlocky. The moral dilemma is in tact in the ending, but feels quicker (even though some parts are played out longer) and not as bleak somehow. Rorschach seems more heroic than he should, and less disturbingly complex. Overall, enjoyed, and would definitely watch it again.

Watchmen

See also Read and Seen: Revolutionary Road.

Read and Seen: Revolutionary Road

The first in a series of simultaneous book and film reviews by LiteraryMinded‘s Angela Meyer and Celluloid Tongue‘s Gerard Elson.

Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates
(orig. 1961, several editions: Aus, US)
Angela says…

Revolutionary Road opens with a moody series of observances and a sense of foreboding – 1955, Western Connecticut, settled yet restless characters, cars too large and gleaming, a community play, and Frank and April Wheeler. Frank puts in his time at a self-confessed uninteresting and boring position in the office at Knox Business Systems. April stays at home with the children. The novel is generally from Frank’s point-of-view, with the occasional chapter switching to fellow suburbanite Shep Campbell, who is coupled with Milly; and Mrs Givings. Mrs Givings is a sad character – lonely and aiming to please. She talks too much about nothing, invades people’s lives, and yet dismisses them easily. You can’t help but feel sorry for her when her husband turns his hearing aid off when she’s speaking, or when she fails to communicate meaningfully with her son, whose rage and abrupt nature drove him to the local Greenacres mental hospital.

There are many small plot strands, all related. These include Frank’s dissatisfaction with his menial job, but then also comfort in his stature. When he is offered promotional opportunities he finds it hard to resist. Frank also has his eye on young Maureen Gruber at his office. His seduction is infinitely self-aware. He constructs a picture of himself, from old and new material. ‘Sentences poured from him, paragraphs composed themselves and took wing, appropriate anecdotes sprang to his service…’.

Frank’s feelings surrounding his work and the conquering of Maureen, plus his desire to ‘play house’ with wife and children in the novel, all relate to his confused notion of ‘being a man’ – something constructed by memories of his father (also a ‘Knox man’) and societal views/expectations. ‘The man’ he becomes is self-satisfied, contradictory, and primal. He decides not to apologise to young Maureen – ‘Did an eagle apologise? Did a lion apologise? Hell, no.’ This and the following pages are both humourous and horrifying. One minute all he wants and needs from April is love – in other parts of the novel he realises that the strains and pressures on their relationship have come about through things he has implied – dreams, philosophies, intellectual thoughts and witticisms. The Wheelers’ conversations (about politics, the intellectual underground, etc.) over cocktails with the similar suburban-sceptics Shep and Milly Campbell used to be one of their only saving graces, and it is poignant when Frank realises, on one of these occasions, he is telling the same story he has told before. On this same night, another part of the conversation degenerates frighteningly into judgmental community-based gossip.

The main plot strand, brought about by much of this, is April’s suggestion – why don’t the Wheelers go to Europe? Europe is a glimmering beacon of hope, of newness and difference. Europe was in their minds back in a little flat in Greenwich Village in New York, when Frank was a still-young veteran, and April came into his life. His first moment of ‘being a man’ in his mind, is when he stopped her from aborting their first child. The decision to move to the suburbs and fold into ‘settled life’ came soon after. In the book, we don’t get to know April as well as we do Frank (I imagine it will be more balanced in the film), but her plans for Europe include her working and supporting the family, while Frank ‘finds himself’ and fulfils his intellectual potential. Frank finds the notion appealing and repulsive simultaneously. It is never explicitly noted within the novel, but April’s plan would be more selfish than it seems on the surface – for April to have a freedom of her own in being an independent working woman. But Frank’s actions in the chapters following the plan’s unveiling are evident of his fear of losing control over his status, his ‘manliness’, and his winning position over his wife.

It’s hard not to turn this into an analysis as the ending would be so wonderful to show you how some of the themes are tragically summed-up, but I don’t want to ruin it. There is a lot of humour, and wryness throughout the book, through Frank’s character, and the general subtle interjections by an omniscient narrator, but overall this is a very depressing, poignant, and intelligent piece of literature. Be prepared. Yates really knew his characters well. The fight sequence early on in the novel, after the play, is described so strikingly – the fight itself as an entity, separate from these two people – ‘It quivered their arms and legs and wrenched their faces into shapes of hatred…’, and ‘…it sent their memories racing back over the years for old weapons to rip the scabs off old wounds…’ The writing in general is masterful, compelling, and completely assured.

Some other poignant scenes describe the frustrations of a button-down life. In one, Frank is enjoyably reading the ‘funnies’ to his children, feeling warmth and love, when suddenly he changes. His daughter doesn’t understand that an ad on the page is not a ‘funny’ and wants him to read it anyway. ‘He set his bite. All the nerves at the root of his teeth seemed to have entwined with the nerves at the roots of his scalp in a tingling knot.’ And then he is helplessly sinking into the couch ‘…like a man in quicksand.’ He wants to pick up a chair and throw it at the window. He wonders ‘What the hell kind of a life [is] this?’ Thinking about the film American Beauty, you can see why Sam Mendes was so drawn to this material.

As some long-term LiteraryMinded readers would know, I’d call American Beauty my favourite film. And I really can’t wait to see what Mendes has done with Yates’ Revolutionary Road. There are so many moments which would be seamlessly translatable to celluloid – perfect dialogue (such as in the scenes where the Givings’ son John visits the Wheelers), and scenes where Frank is both doing something, and simultaneously in his mind describing it to April that same night. I don’t want to ruin it, but there is a scene involving a birthday cake, which absolutely pummeled me in the chest. This will be one of the most poignant moments in the film, too. There is another, toward the end, where an ad chimes in on the TV at an inopportune moment, a juxtaposition perfect for the screen.

But there are so many parts, so apt in their description, that would be difficult to translate to subtext – through an actor’s facial expressions, through a set piece, and interaction. I don’t envy Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet and other cast members for the wealth of history, emotional scars, and real human flaws they would have had to absorb for their roles, to make them effective. Some examples are the aforementioned seduction scene with Maureen Gruber. How will we know that Frank is recycling witticisms? I suppose his self-satisfaction will be evident in his face. There are many internalisations by Frank in the novel – how to translate to film the way he studies the own cadence of his speech, his delivery, or the way he knows that his profile is striking when lighting a cigarette in the dark with cupped-hand? I can’t wait to find out.

Revolutionary Road
(directed by Sam Mendes, screenplay by Justin Haythe, 2009 [now on DVD/blu-ray])
Gerard says…

A director kissed by Oscar; a source novel of the ‘unsung classic’ persuasion; the romantic leads of the most monumental blockbuster in history re-teaming for the first time since the first time: on paper, Revolutionary Road reads about as sure a bet there is, a prestige project seemingly on step for a quick path from box-office blitzkrieg to gong-laden glory come the opening of envelopes at the Academy’s annual awards night.

But consider that director, one Sam Mendes, the man who followed his statue-snaffling debut American Beauty with that most un-serious of things: a comic book movie. Granted, your standard spandex super-slam the elegant Irish mob drama Road to Perdition may not have been, though you hardly see Clint Eastwood railroading an adaptation of Maus. Mendes has happily continued to play outside the expectations of ‘important filmmaker’ his dazzling bow has seen him enduringly saddled with (see the undervalued Gulf War dramedy, Jarhead – key message: “War’s not hell – just boring”), and though Revolutionary Road again sees him peering beyond the Beauty-ful façade of American suburbia, its success seems much less a certain thing. With its unblinking portrayal of conjugal cataclysm and not a Lester Burnham-esque sea change conceivably in sight, Road runs us through an emotional grinder without proffering any easy lifelines of hope for respite – a sobering smack in the face of any inherent audience anticipations for Titanic 2: Jack’s Back.

In reuniting the stars of that James Cameron juggernaut, one might assume its long-reaching shadow to loom large over Mendes’ latest, but his leads are too dexterous for that. As Frank and April Wheeler, the bright young things on a perilous slope to mediocrity-induced marital meltdown after almost a decade of idling in a cul de sac of middle-class comfort and conformity, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet quickly make clear that Road‘s pastel-hued ’50s milieu makes for far more treacherous waters where the unsatisfied dreams of ambitious lovers are concerned. After a tidy series of flashbacks in which the pair fall in love and plan big, we find April’s acting aspirations dashed by a clumsy amateur production of The Petrified Forest, and Frank, nearing 30 and now just another face in the wash of the crowd, inking his pen in the office’s secretarial well. Realising the thrill of their youth has given way to thinly-masked resentment (the two are forever one wrong word from full-blown blow-up), April acknowledges desperate measures best remedy desperate times and suggests the nuclear family uproot and make wings for Paris.

Where American Beauty screenwriter Alan Ball saw the ‘burbs as a free-for-all stomping ground for his mordant satirical wit, Justin Haythe here streamlines author Richard Yates’ expansive tome into an inward-gazing vivisection of the death rattle of a marriage. Amidst all of the cyclonic connubial cannibalising, DiCaprio and Winslet still manage room to make us root for their ill-fated couple, despite each of their plentiful character defects and a script that never quite cuts to the heart of their existential despairs. Sure, April’s desire for something more is universal enough, but Winslet handled similar themes with greater sympathy in Little Children. Though the seeping, faceless, dread of the kitchen sink chain-link that comes with foregoing the life you envisioned to make do and get by is perhaps ample motivation for her drastic dramatics – and given Frank’s inability to distinguish his responsibility to provide from his dependability to support, April’s frustrations stay palpably graspable.

A high-class gallery of supporting players delve into dealings with gusto, with David Harbour and Kathryn Hahn particularly fine as the Wheelers’ silently desperate best friends. Kathy Bates finds a stratum of sadness in her nattering neighbourhood yenta, and Michael Shannon, as her lapsed mathematician son on leave from the loony bin, spits venom at the Wheelers and steals every scene. With so much of the film’s strangling story taking place in its fussily furbished interiors, a sense of Mendes’ board-toeing heritage at times threatens to swallow proceedings; it can feel like Eisenhower-era Ibsen – claustrophobic, suffocating – though that’s no doubt the director’s intent. There’s no rain-battered gun spat nor a heavenly, petal-laced virgin (in fact, this is Mendes’ most down-to-earth offering yet), but, abetted by Roger Deakins’ immaculate photography, his eye remains clever as ever and his sense of humour resolutely intact (just wait ‘til you see where he smuggles a nod to wife Winslet’s infamously steamy Titanic automobile romp; the irony will have you in giggles).

With its clinical scrutiny put to work over the still-twitching vows of its begrudgingly bourgeois man and wife, Revolutionary Road makes up in intensity and slow-bleed malaise what it lacks as a sheer entertainment. This is exhausting, cathartic, impeccably played and another handsome addition to Mendes’ increasingly interesting oeuvre, but for those seeking amour or a sob-wringing weepy, don’t be surprised if you wind up too winded to for tears.

Angela’s post-film notes…

The film is large, the score is wonderful, and the acting is top notch. But so many of the subtleties are unfortunately lost. The wryness of the book, too, is mostly dismissed in the character of Frank, who comes off as confused, but less complexedly so. A lot is lost in not being able to access his egotism. Millie and Shep are far less developed than they are in the book too, but again, the casting is perfect. I felt there weren’t quite enough moments of contrast, though there were a few beautifully chosen ones – particularly the scenes with Mr and Mrs Givings and their ‘insane’ son John. The film overall is very faithful to the book, using large chunks of dialogue, and filling in blanks with well-written new exchanges. As I thought, there is a lot of pressure put on the actors to portray the characters’ thoughts simply through a look or gesture. Kate Winslet is haunting in this. Leonardo DiCaprio acts brilliantly, it’s just a shame there weren’t a few more scenes written to make Frank a little more multi-dimensional. That all being said, they’re still one of the most complex couples portrayed on screen that I’ve seen recently. One scene killed me, and it wasn’t the one I thought would – when Mrs Givings puts up her little hand for the second time and shouts ‘He’s not well, Frank’. And the very end scene is perfect. Overall, I think some might find this film dramatic, but with the combined knowledges of book and film I was literally shaking with emotion through much of it. And when something makes me feel like that, I’m grateful for the way it acknowledges the many layers, horrible and beautiful, of existence. I loved the movie and would watch it again, despite a few shortcomings, but I did love the book more. I think it would be a rich experience to read it afterwards and discover deeper aspects of the characters’ personalities and backgrounds.