Age of Anxiety writer Richard Yates’ first and arguably finest novel gets a Titanic big screen makeover courtesy of reunited stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet and director hubby Sam Mendes.
It’s 1955 in suburban Connecticut; the Eisenhower administration is engendering conformity while Joe McCarthy is busy bashing reds under the bed. Big Apple salary schlep Frank (DiCaprio) and housewife April (Kate Winslet) spend their spare time drinking, smoking and arguing. Dissatisfied with their white picket fence dream they try to reinvigorate their life and love with a proposed move to Paris to live the bohemian life. As the date for their departure approaches, their best-laid plans begin to become undone with devastating consequences.
Yates’ 1961 novel is a troubling deconstruction of the more communal and social aspects of the American dream and, as such, it’s easy to see why American Beauty director Mendes was drawn to this material. Working from Justin Haythe’s commendably faithful screenplay, Mendes works hard to strike the right tone that is both in line with Yates’ pessimistic analysis, bi-polar characters and hope sucking timeline and yet not too bleak for a modern audience.
That Mendes almost succeeds is a testament to how far he has come as a filmmaker however, unusually here, unfamiliarity with the source novel is likely to lead to bewilderment and frustration in the same way Pinter’s early plays did before he got his audience ‘on message’. Prestige and gongs aside, it is debateable whether Yates’ intense, claustrophobic and quite brilliant novel really needed to be made into a film, its essence is probably better decanted in shows like HBO’s Mad Men than anything else.
Fundamentals aside, Winslet and DiCaprio bring the weight of their separate experiences to their demanding roles, while fellow doomed ship alumni Kathy Bates is pitch perfect as nosy real estate agent Helen Givings, and David Harbour is terrific as thick necked neighbour Shep. Michael Shannon (last seen in Shotgun Stories and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead steals the show as the Givings’ psycho son from who’s mouth unbearable truths do stream. Plus the fixtures, fittings and costumes are to die for… if you like that kind of thing.
General release from Fri 30 Jan.