The film Revolutionary Road based on Richard Yates novel is the only masterpiece of American cinema I saw in 2009. The film is about American men giving up their dreams in the 1950s and one woman's refusal to let go of those dreams. Most critics being men fail to look at gender roles in the film and compare this film to The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit failing to see that there is no hero but a heroine April Wheeler. Yates himself said in an interview that he saw in the 1950s many Americans giving in to mindless conformity and security: "Anyway, a great many Americans were deeply disturbed by all that — felt it to be an outright betrayal of our best and bravest revolutionary spirit — and that was the spirit I tried to embody in the character of April Wheeler."
Released December 26, 2009, the film wasn't really seen until 2009. The film is blessed with a wonderful director Sam Mendes who is able to get great performances from his steller cast--Leonardo di Caprio, Kate Winslett, Michael Shannon, Kathy Bates. Winslett was the driving force behind getting this novel made into a film. For years she wanted to star in this film until she finally convinced her director husband Mendes to make it; she said she prepared by reading Betty Friedan's Feminist Mystique classic about 1950s housewives' unhappiness about their lives.
The first ten minutes of the film establish Frank (di Caprio) and April (Winslett) meeting at a downtown New York party and falling in love in the late 1940s--full of promise and life. Then it's the mid-1950s and realtor Kathy Bates shows Frank and April a suburban house in Connecticut which they buy--but the house is on Revolutionary Road named after the American Revolution.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins beautifully captures 1995 with shots of Frank, dressed in suit, hat, and tie, at suburban train station full of identically dressed men. Then Frank is again seen on the train, the streets of New York, and the office elevator always in crowds of identically dressed male conformists. The cinematogrpaher captures the era through a quick series of beautiful shots. Frank deals with his boredom at his white collar sales job with afternoon adultery and martini lunches with his male office mates. These shots are intercut with scenes of April alone in her wooden white suburban house where she seems permeated with loneliness as she puts out the garbage on an abandoned street lined with identical garbage cans. What makes this scene work Winslett's blonde beauty playing off her character's feeling trapped in a life she never wanted.
April plays lead in an play doing an awful job. As she comes to realize her youthful dreams of being an actress at phantasy, the couple has their first blow out fight. Yates' novel and the movie show white middle class America about to give up its revolutionary dreams for post-World War II and settle for security, suburbia, a two-car garage, two children, and a little adultery. Only April refuses, and convinces Frank to chuck his safe job, take the children, and move to Paris--to freedom, to new possibilities, to an unfettered life.
What threatens this dream of freedom is April's getting pregnant with her third child and Frank's being offered a promotion and big raise. She wants to self-abort but her husband tells her that idea sickens him and he wants to take the job. What's fascinating is that it's the woman who feels utterly suffocated in this life she doesn't want. She like Patrick Henry says "liberty or death." After a horrific fight April runs away to stay at night by herself in the woods behind the house. She is a rebel and she is wild. Like all American rebels--Hawthorn, Whitman, Twain all tell their stories-- she runs off to the wild place.
American rebels like April do return home from their time in the wilderness. She returns in the morning like a cheerful robot making her husband eggs for breakfast but she's only wearing a robot mask. Once he's off to work, she takes out the equipment to abort herself. April is like those American revolutionaries in putting her life on the line for her freedom. Nobody--not the husband, not the church, not the state--will tell her what to do. Liberty or death. She dies from the abortion. She is a tragic heroine whose flaws--her inability to see a life without her mediocre husband--lead to hear death.
Unfortunately, Yates lost his nerve in the novel's ending and Mendes follows him showing how the April's tragedy becomes fodder for neighborhood gossip--April's rebellion going nowhere. I would end the film with the daughter hearing her mother's dead. But the ending problem is minor. Both novelist Yates, director Mendes, and actress Winslett make April into an American tragic heroine in this awesome film.
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