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.

6 thoughts on “Read and Seen: Revolutionary Road

  1. Bloody hell, I can comment. See, that wasn’t so hard … just request a password reset, wait for the email, visit the password reset confirmation screen and wait for the second email with password included. It’s all a bit Get Smart, isn’t it?

    Oh, it’s Rhys by the way. Nice multitask into the world of film, you busy thing, you.

  2. Gerard’s writing is very rich, isn’t it? I reckon he lays it on a bit too thick, even for a review of a literary kind of movie, but lots of lovely turns and tumbles. I saw the movie without really realising it was based on an “unsung classic” novel … I’ll seek it out one day, add it to my large mountain of unread books (and yes Neerav, I will return the Quality SF collection to you, I promise).

  3. Hi Jonathan, I think you should definitely add Yates’ Rev Rd to your pile.

    Re: Gerard’s writing – I find his ‘turns and tumbles’ lovely indeed – I think his viscous, rythhmic style is unique, wholly creative, and very appealing indeed. But each to their own, of course!

  4. Pingback: Collected Stories – Richard Yates – LiteraryMinded

  5. Pingback: Read and Seen: Watchmen – LiteraryMinded

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