Kate Winslet is as talented as any leading lady in her thirties. She throws her whole body into the act (is anyone more honest while naked on film? Will she ever get her “Last Tango”?). Like Meryl Streep (whose career Winslet must be studying), she is no great beauty, but becomes luminous by her intelligence, range, and bravery.
She’s more than enough woman to play April Wheeler in “Revolutionary Road,” the film based on the justly revered 1961 book by Richard Yates. The influence of Yates’ realism can be felt in authors with an ear for suburban suffering like Andre Dubus, whose “In The Bedroom” is a hop skip and a jump from another Winslet film, “Little Children”. Winslet is attracted to that nimbus, and drew in her husband, Sam Mendes, who made “American Beauty,” to direct.
But another key casting decision has led to some strange effects. Leonard DiCaprio, who became a movie star with Winslet when they starred in “Titanic” ten years ago, is Frank Wheeler. (Hollywood has milked this rematch, but were we desiring it?)
DiCaprio has become nearly as accomplished as Winslet. We read him as sharp and steely, but with such sensitivity that he has a delicacy, no matter how pumped his biceps in “Blood Diamond,” no matter how crazy his Irish-tough-guy bluster in “The Departed”. His status as a leading man is always threatened by his slight frame and boyish looks.
The opening of “Revolutionary Road” is very fine, an encouragement to those who know the book. April, cursed with too much life, is suffocating in a town two sizes too small for her (this is 1950s suburban Connecticut, which, we’re shown, comes with straight jacket social conformity). She is being kept alive by her leading role in a community play. But when the curtain falls, the clapping is so thin and polite, it’s proof of a debacle.
Frank, as embarrassed as empathic, heads to the dressing room, rehearsing how he will comfort April. “April, honey?” he says, tentatively, sticking his head inside. She doesn’t hear his gentleness. When she appears, she is so clouded that Frank goes instantly on the defensive, and the insecure bastard that lives within him is suddenly saying, “Well, it wasn’t exactly a triumph, was it.”
There is a fight, in the car, on the way home, in which sharpened disappointments fling in all directions like shrapnel from a buried mine. Frank takes April’s misery, and his impotency in helping her, as an accusation. She needs to recompose; but the more she begs for oxygen, the harder he pushes. So she ridicules his manhood. Some men can be emasculated just that easily.
April fell for Frank because he misrepresented his listlessness as reckless bravery, a faux passion. In fact, he was, and still is, a lost boy who does not want to be his father, dissipated in an office job he despised, but still needs the approval of his father’s ghost. Watch how an executive in Frank’s company (they make office machines) observes that crack in Frank, and works it as only a master manipulator can. An actor who didn’t wear his weakness on his sleeve – someone as conventionally handsome as a male model, maybe John Hamm from “Mad Men” – would have been more in keeping with the motif of struggle behind manicured exteriors.
April grabs Frank by the ears, and hauls him around to her dream: they will escape, move to Paris. She will become a translator, and support them; Frank will take time off, study, explore, and finally find out who he wants to be. Watch the hateful flickers on the faces of their friends and neighbors, who need the Wheelers to fail, or their own illusions might fall like a house of cards.
A subplot, involving the mentally ill adult son of their realtor (the sick man is played by Michael Shannon), who compulsively speaks truth to the Wheelers, foregrounds the theme. When your whole world is false, the truth sounds like madness. For a little while, April can make Frank see that. But cumulative disappointment injects a deadly doubt into a couple that really could create a new world, if they’d cling together, and look nowhere but into each others’ eyes. What a desperately sad film.