Film Review: Revolutionary Road

Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio rise to the acting challenges of this downbeat exploration of 1950s suburban ennui and marital discord, adapted from the acclaimed novel by Richard Yates.

It’s been a long road to the movies for Revolutionary Road, the influential 1961 debut novel about middle-class malaise by the highly esteemed but voluble Richard Yates. First optioned in 1965 by future Godfather producer Al Ruddy, then retained for years by the actor Patrick O’Neal, the project finally caught fire when Kate Winslet read an adaptation by Justin Haythe, a relatively green screenwriter hired by new rights-holder BBC Films. With Winslet’s husband, director Sam Mendes, and her friend and Titanic co-star Leonardo DiCaprio completing the package, this difficult property was suddenly on the hot list.

With its bleak and biting portrait of a suburban marriage, Revolutionary Road isn’t most moviegoers’ dream of a Kate and Leo reunion. For the actors, however, it’s a thrilling challenge, and both stars take a bold leap into characterizations that are emotionally raw and often alienating, people we might despise as chilly and condescending but whom we can still relate to as symbols of unfulfilled yearnings. Like Yates’ highly readable and hypnotic novel, the film can be exasperating, but it touches a nerve.

DiCaprio plays Frank Wheeler, a World War II veteran who once had vague dreams of greatness but now works in the sales promotion department of a business-machines company and returns each night to a cozy house in Connecticut, to his wife April (Winslet) and their two young children. Both the novel and film begin with a personal fiasco for April, an abysmal community theatre production which forever dashes her hopes of being an actress and exacerbates the couple’s frustration and bitterness. April shakes off her depression by hatching an impetuous scheme: What better remedy for their stagnation than to sell the house and move to Paris? Why, April can easily get a job with a government agency, while Frank takes the time to find his bliss and fulfill his grand potential!

The plan shocks their more traditional best friends, Milly and Shep Campbell (Kathryn Hahn and David Harbour), and their well-meaning realtor, Mrs. Givings (Kathy Bates, another Titanic survivor). When unexpected opportunities arise at Frank’s job and April discovers she is pregnant, the Paris proposal becomes a source of new tension for the fragile Wheeler marriage—and a dangerous fixation for April.

Because they’re played by such charismatic actors, Frank and April are somewhat more engaging on film than they are in print. But in both mediums, the couple comes across as supercilious and self-absorbed, with a pathetically inflated view of their place in this world that barely masks their insecurities. And yet, can’t we all connect with their failed dreams, with the sense that the banal demands of our daily existence have sapped our energy, with the feeling that there must be something better than the life of convention circa 1955 or 2008? That’s the continuing draw of Yates’ tale, no matter how somber or abrasive.

In the commercial movie marketplace, such a theme is a tougher sell, but Revolutionary Road offers the opportunity to see two gifted stars surpassing themselves, especially in those fierce scenes of confrontation where their grievances turn corrosive. In the key supporting roles, Bates maintains sympathy and reveals the pain beneath her determinedly cheerful, intrusive character, while Hahn and Harbour make a simultaneously amusing and poignant contrast to the “golden” Wheelers. And in a standout performance sure to receive an Oscar nomination, Michael Shannon (Bug, World Trade Center) is riveting as Mrs. Givings’ clinically insane son John, whom she tries to integrate into the Wheelers’ lives. Perhaps a mouthpiece for Yates, John hilariously and bluntly tears apart the polite façade of any conversation he joins. He’s a scene-stealer in the book, and a welcome jolt to this finely crafted downer of a movie.