Directed by Sam Mendes
There used to be an adage among directors: Never let an actor choose your play. What this meant was that the actor sees it as an opportunity to show every possible technique he or she has learned, from masterful wit to uncontrolled terror or pity, from sexy moments to cold disdain; all to the detriment of the play itself.
I had that feeling when I saw “Revolutionary Road,” the new film from the 1950s novel by Richard Ford, about the ways in which a young couple destroy themselves before our very eyes. I never read the novel, but I can imagine that when Kate Winslet, who’s married to the director Sam Mendes, did read it, she saw what any accomplished actor would see, namely the chance to show her range and talent for every kind of emotion.
And she was right; the film is a grinding two-hour experience in which the Wheelers, Frank and April, played by Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, begin in love and shared romantic visions of their lives together, and end up without anything at all. She is an actress at a community theatre in Connecticut, he works for an office-machine company in New York. Cut to seven years later, when they have two children and she is a suburban mom and he is still a cog in the office-machine company. Their dream is to go to Paris, where she will support them as a secretary for an international agency, and he will use the time to find out just what he’d like to be when he grows up.
Then, little by little, he finds he hasn’t got the courage to meet her vision; he has a tawdry affair with a new secretary at his company, he gets offered a raise, she sees the world and her fantasy of a better life collapsing around her and, as they say, tragedy ensues.
I don’t mean to make light of “Revolutionary Road,” but I do believe that it must work better as a novel than a film, because when we read the novel we create our own images of Frank and April and their lives, instead of looking at Winslet and DiCaprio to embody them for us. There’s nothing wrong with their performances, except that they don’t leave us much room for invention; we end up pitying them as objects instead of seeing ourselves in them, as we might by reading the novel.
Sam Mendes’s direction is claustrophobic, which is understandable as their world shrinks to nothing, though I wish he’d stayed a bit farther away from his actors, which I think would have let us in the audience do a little more of the work of understanding just what made the Wheelers implode.