The key line of dialogue in Revolutionary Road, the new film by director Sam Mendes, is spoken by John Givings, a mentally ill mathematician who features in two keys scenes from the film. When John first meets Frank and April Wheeler and identifies their desire to escape from suburbanite conformity he remarks, “Plenty of people are onto the emptiness but it takes real guts to notice the hopelessness”. This line comes during the first part of this film about 1950s middle class American life. The Wheelers are a young couple who have decided to ditch their dull and bland lives to move to Paris in order to escape from their self imposed comfort zone. The idea is that April Wheeler will work instead of playing the part of reluctant homemaker and Frank Wheeler will attempt to discover what it is he really wants to do in life, rather than waste away in a meaningless office job. However, as their plan to escape to a new life is set in motion fears, anxieties and the trappings of their secure routine lifestyle begin to threaten that plan.
Revolutionary Road is a highly accomplished film that will thematically resonate with many audiences who have like the Wheelers recognised both the emptiness and hopelessness of suburban inertia. This is familiar ground for Sam Mendes as the ideas being explored in this film, plus its use of music and bold, yet never self conscious, cinematography evoke Mendes’s brilliant film début, American Beauty. The acting is also superb with both Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet giving incredibly strong performances as Frank and April Wheeler. They present themselves on screen as a completely believable and recognisable couple. They are a likeable pair but also flawed and both capable of behaving destructively towards the other. The strain on their marriage as a result of external pressures is genuinely upsetting to witness. The scenes depicting their arguments are explosive and reminiscent of the brutal exchange of words throughout Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? While the rest of the cast is also strong, Michael Shannon (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) is particularly brilliant as the troubled John.
The main problem with Revolutionary Road is that it simply feels a little too late. It is an adaptation of a highly influential and revered 1961 novel by Richard Yates, who had wanted to write a film adaptation himself but rights issues meant that he died without ever being able to do so. While you can imagine the power of such a novel when it was first published in 1961, its attack of middle-class conformity is now well-trodden ground. There are moments, ideas and characters in Revolutionary Road that evoke films as recent as The Ice Storm, Far from Heaven, The Hours and, of course, American Beauty. Revolutionary Road has neither the bite that these other superior films have, nor does it linger in the mind to the extent that it could.