Once in a blue moon, I’ll read the source material for a film before seeing the film itself. Just the other day, on the plane back from Barcelona, I finished Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, fighting back tears, and wrestling against sobs. It was so exquisitely written, and so terribly tragic – there was something all consuming about its accessible tone. My anticipation for the movie gave me a twinge of anxiety as a result.
So seldom is a novel properly adapted for the screen. My go-to example of the perfect adaptation is, hands down, The Age of Innocence (1993) – my favorite film and novel, incidentally. The tone remains in tact, the characters alive and fully formed, the cinematography exquisitely lush, and the score sweeping and engulfing. All of the pieces just come together.
Revolutionary Road, unfortunately, just doesn’t fully cut it as an adaptation. The cinematography is perfection, and the score is spot on. The screenplay reads as one of the best possible renditions of the source material, as well, which is quite a feat. Yet something just doesn’t add up to a fully formed, cohesive whole.
I adore Kate Winslet, and think she is one of the best actresses of the past twenty years. Her emotive range is exquisite, as is her capacity for nuanced character studies. And yet something doesn’t entirely jive. The expressions are there, as is the inflection, but it’s as if the lights are on and no one’s home.
The same goes for Leonardo DiCaprio, an actor who has grown by leaps and bounds since his boyish Titanic days. He may not be Winslet’s equal in terms of acting chops, but he certainly does his damnedest to keep up. He’s capable, and yet something feels artificial about his performance.
You could argue that that’s intentional, in part a reflection of the times being depicted. There is an artificiality to the dialogue in the book as well, in terms of the Keeping-Up-With-The-Jones’ mentality of the time. However, it reads … differently. There’s an honesty behind the facade. Here it feels altogether unintentionally hollow, its key shortcoming.
The truest character adaptation, my favorite by far, is Michael Shannon’s John Givings – sheer perfection. He embodies every ounce of the character Yates created, with no compromise. You get a real sense of his motivation in the short time he’s on screen, and his catalytic role in the Wheeler’s lives.
Winslet and DiCaprio’s chemistry pains me – their interactions feel forced at every turn. The one exception to this rule comes nearer the end of the film, with an explosive fight wherein the characters unleash every resentment that’d been boiling below the surface. It’s the only truly honest moment between not only the characters, but the actors themselves. This is a problem – we are meant to believe them from start to finish, and only at the film’s conclusion do we start to see any kind of interaction.
I wanted to love this. I adored the book, and think it’s one of the most important and relevant pieces of contemporary literature. I think the direction was misguided, and as such the performances faltered. Mendes was on the right track for the most part – he successfully created the world these people inhabited. It’s just off by a hair. But when you’re so close to perfection, a hair can seem like a gaping chasm.
This post was originally published on my tumblr on June 30, 2012.