Sam Mendes

Revolutionary Road:
Marred Sophistication, Trapped Dreams

Kate Winslet and Leonardo Di Caprio in Revolutionary Road,
directed by Sam Mendes.

Warning: some spoilers below.

Revolutionary Road is a beautifully made film, boasting magnificent performances in the perfectly orchestrated backdrop of 1950s America. Director Sam Mendes takes on issues and struggles of a heft usually reserved for literature (and in fact, this is an adaptation of the book by Richard Yates). The film depicts the ruin of a marriage and the constricting bonds of a culture that values conformity over personal happiness.

The film centers on April and Frank Wheeler, living in suburban Connecticut and tending to the responsibilities at hand. Frank trudges into the crowded city each day, punching the clock at a joyless office job while April minds the house and children in an idealized yet lonesome world. While Frank is satisfied with the thrills of lunchtime infidelities, April is bent on a better future for the whole family, one in which romance and adventure trump conformity and security. Her desire manifests in a plan to move to Paris; the couple’s discontent dissolves as they pack their belongings and book tickets aboard a steamer. April’s idea, to support the family as a secretary while Frank takes a sabbatical to find his true purpose, seems far-fetched from the start, but we are swept away in their enthusiasm, hoping that their love will overcome the strictures of a chauvinistic culture.

One of Mendes’s great successes is the mood he captures, in which we see doom but continue to hope for these characters. Kate Winslet’s April is that fragile balance of strength and whim so rarely achieved without overdoing it. The world around her closes in, and yet she continues to believe that things can change. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Frank for the coward he is; his youthful good looks and charm allow him to coast in a world where people are pleased to accept the easiest answers and deflect personal responsibility. Frank has a gift in April. She sees the potential within him as no one else does, a vision she received as she fell in love with him years ago, but rather than harnessing the strength of his wife to propel him forward, Frank accepts mediocrity.

This is where the film takes an unfortunate turn. April discovers she is pregnant with their third child and designs for their escape to Paris crumble. While she still holds out hope for their future abroad, Frank is getting comfortable with the possibility of promotion at work and staying on in suburbia. The ease with which he accepts the dissolution of their dreams devastates April, and her image of Frank is shattered. Without the idol of her husband April’s strength and conviction disappear and blame shifts to the child with her. Wouldn’t things have gone according to plan if she were never pregnant?

While the book may have succeeded in tackling this issue, the film falls short. I simply didn’t believe that April would have confronted the dilemma as she did. Perhaps Winslet’s performance lent too much strength to the character, but the onscreen April was too resilient to let herself die this way. She would have left for Paris on her own, gone through illegal means, or simply moved back to thriving, culture-filled Manhattan. The only way I could justify her solution was to see it as a suicide attempt. And until this point the film concentrates on the unsaid, mundane and normal aspects of working out a marriage – but April’s choice devastates that sophistication.

If only the film had ended sooner, when the outcome was implied, when our own intelligence as viewers was still respected. We knew after their explosive argument that their marriage was fractured beyond repair. We saw at breakfast that April was broken, her spirit crushed under the realization that this dead end was to be her life. We witnessed Frank’s despicable cowardice when he accepted April’s half-hearted performance of a happy housewife and walked out the door towards work rather than confront the gaping wounds in front of him. If only the credits had rolled then. We could have imagined the end: would April continue her charade until old age? Would they sink into the common culture they had once abhorred? Would April abandon Frank and her children? Would she go through with her threat? Would you?

But the ending on screen doesn’t allow for such weighty wondering. The theatrical twist of events makes it easy to turn the scrutiny away from one’s self and back on the characters whose desperate behavior becomes altogether dramatic and distant. Where once I put myself in her shoes, now I looked in judgment; where once I empathized with Frank, now I looked on at his suffering with disdain and dismissed him. A film centered on what is implicit and unspoken would have benefited from leaving some things unseen.