Based on the celebrated Richard Yates novel of 1950s conformity, “Revolutionary Road” is initially as trapped in that benighted decade as its protagonists. It takes the skill of stars Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio and director Sam Mendes to get this film to a place where it involves and moves us -- which it finally does -- but it is a near thing.
The story of a young married couple, disappointed dreamers who both wonder how their lives came to be so different than their aspirations and question whether they have the fortitude to make a change, “Revolutionary Road” finds itself hampered by factors that were so intrinsic to the original project that they couldn’t be removed.
The most obvious difficulty is the era itself, the cozy but stifling 1955 New York and Connecticut world in which Frank and April Wheeler (DiCaprio and Winslet) live. It’s not so much the way things looked; in fact, a Roger Deakins-lensed shot of a wave of businessmen wearing hats storming Manhattan from Grand Central Station is rather haunting. It’s how they sound.
Justin Haythe’s screenplay does many good things, but it can’t escape the arch lingo of the time, women saying “I must scoot” and men calling each other “old sport.” That kind of language can’t help but come off as artificial to contemporary ears, and that in turn makes the film’s concerns initially feel dated and outmoded as well.
When April and Frank first meet, they present the best, most promising versions of themselves to each other at a Manhattan party. She is a beautiful, committed actress, he has charisma to burn, and their potential future together seems especially bright.
When we pick up their lives seven years and two children later, the tone has changed. April is distraught in a community theater dressing room, aghast at the play she has just performed, and Frank has neither the care nor the capacity to empathize. Married and half-regretting it, their idea of communicating is taunting and provoking each other.
What we see at once is that both April and Frank feel suffocated by what their existence has become. Despite living on Revolutionary Road, their lives are anything but radical. She is a creative person trapped by endless housework, while his job at Knox Business Machines in the city, the firm his father worked for, so frustrates him that he has an affair with new secretary Maureen Grube (an incandescent Zoe Kazan) as much out of boredom as anything else.
Glimpsing for a moment the extent of their peril, April hits on a scheme to save them. The whole family will move to Paris, the epitome of 1950s bohemian freedom, and she will work as a secretary while her husband figures out what to do with his life. Together, she says, they will once again “live life as if it matters.” Captured by her fervor, and very much aware of his own danger, Frank agrees.
Only a stone, frankly, would not be captured by the honesty and intensity of Winslet’s performance, by the breathtaking way she throws herself into this lacerating emotional maelstrom. News reports indicate that the actress’ passion for the script was key in getting the film made and in interesting Mendes, her real-life husband and the director of “American Beauty,” and her instincts were impeccable.
DiCaprio’s performance is a bit slower getting going. But his acting is brought into sharper focus once developments at Knox Business Machines make him question whether he can go along with the plans he and April have so carefully made, and the pressures on him mount as he attempts to decide how he should act, and we see the extent to which he is palpably torn.
Despite all this good work, the initial problem with “Revolutionary Road” is that its scenario comes across as being as dated as the language. The notion of decamping to Paris to “find yourself” without having the vaguest idea of what that self might be can sound quaintly old-fashioned, as does the schematic notion that the only person capable of speaking the truth in the entire movie is a lunatic who’s survived 37 shock treatments, on furlough from a mental hospital.
But just as Michael Shannon’s breakthrough performance as the lunatic redeems that concept, so everyone else’s work makes us see the contemporary relevance of “Revolutionary Road.” Encouraged by Mendes’ artful direction, his gift for eliciting naturalness, the core of this film finally cries out to us today, makes us see that the notion of characters struggling with life, with the despair of betraying their best selves because of what society will or won’t allow, is as gripping and relevant now as it ever was. Or ever will be.
MPAA rating: R for language and some sexual content/nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes
Playing: In general release