Sunday, 12 February 2012

Revolutionary Road (2008)

Dir. Sam Mendes
Starring: Leonardo Di Caprio, Kate Winslett, Kathy Bates, Michael Shannon

The cities are worth living in, right? The cities are vibrant, electric, crowded with thousands of people with thousands of stories. The cities are great.

Or if you can’t live in the cities, live in the countryside. Proper countryside – go all Walden. Go all Into the Wild. Have the courage to live out among nature providing for yourself.

And then, in between, we have the suburbs. Neither one thing nor the other. Identikit houses, with identikit families, holding identikit values. It was Anna Karenina that said that “Happy families are all alike…”. Maybe that is what the suburbs are all about – if every family looks alike, then maybe they must all be happy. But the rot behind the middle class values has been creeping in to public discourse since the ‘30s. Perhaps it found truest expression in Richard Yates’s 1961 novel Revolutionary Road which delved into the life lived behind the picture windows of the Wheelers’ Connecticut residence.

Frank (Leonardo Di Caprio) and April (Kate Winslett) Wheeler are the golden couple of their town, seemingly universally liked. Married with two children, they reside in a white-painted house at 115 Revolutionary Road. Each morning Frank commutes into New York where he sells office machines; April is a stay at home wife. And it is killing them. Frank hates his job; April feels imprisoned and unable to realise her acting dreams. When they first moved out to Connecticut they looked down upon the other humdrum suburbanites. But now they have become the same as everybody else. To try and create the spark she thinks they are lacking, April persuades Frank that they should revive one of his own dreams and move to Paris. She would earn good money as a secretary and support him while he decides what he wants to do with his life. Their willingness to leave the suburbs shocks their friends and neighbours – all except John (Michael Shannon), the son of their real estate agent friend Helen (Kathy Bates). He approves their brave move… but then he is currently resident at a psychiatric clinic.

John is the voice of reason – ironically for a mad man. He is the only person who looks at 1950s middle class conformity with modern eyes. He sees the trap that everyone has got themselves into: “You want to play house you got to have a job. You want to play nice house, very sweet house, you got to have a job you don’t like.” That is only half the trap; the remainder is when people convince themselves that this is what they want, and what they have always wanted. Giving up their own dreams to realise what they assume are the dreams of their parents and peers. Frank speaks of the “hopeless emptiness” of the suburbs, a phrase which really strikes John: “’Hopeless emptiness’. Now you’ve said it. Plenty of people are on to the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness.”

April says that “It takes backbone to lead the life you want”. Frank does not have those guts or that backbone. Instead he has “the backbone not to run away from my responsibilities”. He is offered a promotion at work. At the same time April discovers that she is pregnant again, the child probably conceived in a fit of kitchen-work-top passion after telling their neighbours Milly and Shep (Kathryn Hahn and David Harbour) of their plans to emigrate. Frank stops her from aborting the foetus (illegal in Connecticut in 1955, as was contraception). He casts away their plans to move to Paris. He will take the promotion, they will stay here, they will give up on their dreams. April is crushed. “For years I thought we’ve shared this secret that we would be wonderful in the world. I don’t know exactly how, but just the possibility kept me hoping… We were never special or destined for anything at all…”

Trapped in the suburbs:
Kate Winslett as April

April talks of living in a “little trap”, that they are living by rules that someone else made. “Look at us. We’re just like everyone else. We’ve bought in to the same, ridiculous delusion.” But this is safe territory for Frank. He wants to feel like a man, and here he can do that, providing for his family and sleeping with the secretarial pool. Shep is horrified by the thought of Frank being supported by April in Paris: this is a world where gender roles were firmly defined. There is no individuality. Everybody fits into one of a limited number of templates. Frank’s commute is a case in point, just one anonymous figure among all the other suit-and-hat-wearing men pouring off the train at Grand Central Terminal. Everyone dresses the same, drives the same cars, has the same values and principles. For a little while Frank and April try to swim against the tide. And it is because they dare to hope for something different that they are destroyed.

It is their children that have brought them to this place. They moved out to Connecticut because April was pregnant; they then had a second to – as she puts it – prove that the first was not a mistake. When she becomes pregnant a third time this puts paid to ideas of emigrating, the golden bullet she had set all her hopes on to save their relationship. Frank forbids her to have an abortion and decides that they will stay where they are. This is terrible for her, but even worse for their unwanted baby. As John comments, “I’m glad I’m not gonna be that kid.” Having to go through with the pregnancy makes April hate Frank; Frank in turn cannot understand why she is carrying his child if she hates him so. “What the hell are you doing in my house if you hate me so much? Why the hell are you married to me? What the hell are you doing carrying my child? I mean, why didn’t you just get rid of it when you had the chance? Because listen to me, listen to me, I got news for you – I wish to God that you had!” This is the cruellest line in the entire film. In effect he forbids her from trying to save their marriage, then damns her for not trying to save their marriage. The next morning she gets up, dresses nicely, makes him his breakfast, takes an interest in his day at work, and then attempts to abort the foetus despite her having passed the safe time limit to do so.

At the end of the film Frank moves back to the city. Helen tells her husband that she never really liked the Wheelers. They were whimsical and neurotic. They didn’t fit in. They were not like everybody else; they were not a happy family.

What have I learnt about Connecticut?
It is commuter territory, suburbs where the housewives stay home to look after the children and the men catch the train en masse to work ten hours a day at jobs they dislike and fool around with the secretary. People are constantly trying to get ahead, to work out what they want next – a hobby, a bigger house, the neighbour’s wife. Acquisition is the God here. It is like a giant version of ‘Game of Life’. Nothing about life that is good can flourish here. Connecticut destroys your hopes and your dreams.

Can we go there?
Wouldn’t you rather go to Paris?

The entire movie was filmed on location in precisely the sort of Connecticut surroundings that the Wheelers would have lived in. Nothing was shot on set. The Wheelers’ house – 115 Revolutionary Road – is actually 15 Chasmars Pond Road in Darien (pronounced “Dairy En”), Connecticut. You can still reach New York – and specifically Grand Central Terminal – by train from the town. For a day out you can follow in their footsteps and hit Sasco Beach in Fairfield. And for a night out you can try and find Vito’s Log Cabin, which is by Pinewood Lake in Trumbull

Overall Rating: 4/5

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