Richard Yates’s 1961 novel has resisted adaptation for nearly half a century, but as it turns out, the wait has been worth it. In the hands of writer Justin Haythe and director Sam Mendes, “Revolutionary Road” is a wrenchingly powerful depiction of marital disintegration and of the pressures of fifties conformity that lay behind it. It also reunites Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, the stars of “Titanic,” in another love story that may be on a much smaller scale but ends equally tragically.
Apart from one significant departure at the close, the film follows closely the through-line and structure of the book, and is generally quite effective at capturing its tone and perspective as well. That’s particularly important here, not only because Yates’s work was very much a product of its time, reflective of the criticism of the culture of the Eisenhower era that was a major emphasis of the following decade, but because the plot per se is extremely simple. Frank and April Wheeler are a young couple who met, married and bought a charming house on the titular street in a Connecticut suburb of New York City, where Frank commutes to his unfulfilling, faceless job in the advertising department of a business-machine company where his father also worked. April is the typical stay-at-home housewife of the period, who takes care of their two kids—and the house—while Frank’s away at work. (The only small stumble in the script involves the children, who conveniently disappear during the big dramatic moments. But one’s willing to extend license when the moments are so good.)
But April’s feeling trapped and unhappy, especially after her dreams of being an actress are dashed—the production in which she stars at the local high school is a disaster. She blames Frank, who responds with fury of his own. But she suggests an alternative: that they chuck their life and move to Paris, where Frank can “find himself” while she becomes the breadwinner. He seems amenable—though the offer of a promotion at work gives him second thoughts—until April announces that she’s pregnant again, a fact he seizes upon to cancel the move. That only intensifies her depression, leading to a decision on her part that has tragic ramifications.
Much of “Revolutionary Road” is taken up by Frank and April’s confrontations, which the stars enact with ferocious energy. Winslet is very good, even though at some points, especially toward the close, there’s a slightly studied air to her performance, and it doesn’t have quite the fullness of the one she offered in the more modern version of a similarly unhappy housewife in Todd Field’s “Little Children.” But DiCaprio is a revelation. This is easily the best performance he’s given on screen since “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”—he captures Frank’s rage, but also his ambivalence, both about his job and about the prospect of chucking it for the supposed freedom that Paris represents. It’s really a richer character than April, whose emotional trajectory is more straightforward, and DiCaprio relishes every opportunity it offers.
There’s a third major turn in the picture—from Michael Shannon as John Givings, the son of gossipy real estate agent Helen (Kathy Bates, solid). John is a brilliant mathematician who’s suffered a mental breakdown and, being recognized as mad, has the luxury of saying whatever comes to his mind, however unpleasant it might be. On a couple of occasions Helen and her milquetoast husband (Richard Easton, priceless, especially in the closing moments) brings John over to the Wheelers’ while he’s outing from the asylum, and he calls them out—especially Frank—on their hypocrisy. Shannon, so memorable as the paranoid vet in “Bug,” brings a deliciously theatrical bravura to the role, stealing the thunder from everyone else in his scenes. Other solid contributions come from Kathryn Hahn and David Harbour as the Wheelers’ utterly conventional neighbors, Zoe Kazan as a secretary with whom Frank has a one-day fling, Jay O. Sanders as a bigwig at Frank’s company, and especially Dylan Baker, who revels in the foppishness of a cubicle-mate of Frank’s.
The impact of the acting is testimony to the precision of Haythe’s script, and of Mendes’ direction, which is as astute and probing as his work on another sharp dissection of suburban melancholy, “American Beauty,” good enough to make one forget, or at least forgive, the misstep of “Jarhead.” And the behind-the-scenes crew have recreated the ambience of 1955 with impeccable skill. Kristi Zea’s evocative production design, Terri Carriker-Thayer’s art direction, Debra Schutt’s set decoration and Albert Wolsky’s costumes may not have the lushness of the same elements in “Far From Heaven,” another remarkable work set in the same timeframe, but unlike Todd Haynes, Mendes wasn’t out to emulate Douglas Sirk, and they fit his vision perfectly. And as usual cinematographer Roger Deakins sets them off wondrously in his classically-framed widescreen images.
“Revolutionary Road” is a bleak, bitter, brilliant portrayal of the failure of the fifties version of the American dream it so beautifully captures in period terms. It’s a worthy adaptation of its much-praised source.