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The revolution that wasn't

Sam Mendes has a very literal take on a novel about middle class aspirations


Surely the most unusual species of literary adaptation is the one which exposes shortcomings in the novel it sets out to honour. So recognition is due to the director Sam Mendes and the screenwriter Justin Haythe, whose film of Revolutionary Road has the distinction of highlighting the worst tendencies of Richard Yates's 1961 novel about creeping complacency in suburban America.

The film is not without merit. After the opening scene, in which April (Kate Winslet) meets her future husband, Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio), at a New York party in the early Fifties and confesses her thespian ambitions, Mendes does something extraordinary: he jumps from those salad days to a close-up of Frank's wilted face as the curtain falls on April's disastrous am-dram debut years later. You have to take your hat off to Mendes for this savage cut, which reminds you that some miracles conjured in the editing suite have no literary equivalent. Unfortunately, you then have to return that hat to your head for the remainder of the film, where the literary is reduced to the literal.

Despite having two children and a spick-and-span home, Frank and April Wheeler fool themselves that they haven't compromised; even as they conform to suburban type (she's bored, he's unfaithful), they trust in their own uniqueness without being certain when it will manifest itself. Then April hits upon the idea of uprooting the family and going to Paris. She reassures Frank that she will work, thereby freeing him from the tyranny of being the breadwinner, and allowing his as-yet-unseen creativity to blossom. For a while, this talk is sustenance enough. But then Frank receives an incentive to stay put at the office, and the Parisian dream starts to fade.

Yates's writing is so surgically precise in exploring the dynamics of self-delusion that it conceals the way the book stacks the odds against every character. It would take a master to pull off the same trick on screen. And, four pictures into his film career, Mendes is still some distance from masterful. His middlebrow sensibility gravitates toward the book's blandest ideas - it's no wonder he makes such a meal of the scenes featuring John (Michael Shannon), a psychiatric patient who becomes the voice of the Wheelers' deepest fears. The use of the "crazy" guy as the sanest of the bunch is a very Sixties conceit - or very Cuckoo's Nest - and a truly revolutionary take on Revolutionary Road might have dispensed with such devices.

But Mendes thrives on them. His film delights in the irony of Frank returning from an afternoon tryst to find April adoringly overseeing his birthday celebrations, and it overstates the back-to-Eden imagery when she hides out in the woods beyond their house. A pair of china bulls on the Wheelers' sideboard offers a feeble pun on the various references to Frank proving he has "a pair of balls", though we should perhaps be thankful that those ornaments aren't symbolically smashed during one of the Wheelers' many arguments.

Part of the problem is that Yates's vision hasn't been reshaped for the cinema. The costume department has found the right threads, and the production designer has decorated the Wheelers' home with precisely the sort of European art prints this couple would choose to advertise their individuality. But Mendes is still working in the lazy jibes and petty point-scoring of American Beauty, and this limited register makes Revolutionary Road a grotesque parody of the novel; he can't shoot a scene without a slow-zoom for emphasis, or another helping of Thomas Newman's grindingly manipulative score to crank up the melancholy-o-meter.

The picture's failings may be plentiful, but they can't be blamed on Leonardo DiCaprio or Kate Winslet, who imaginatively reinvent the Wheelers. From Winslet's first shot, she is on to something about April - the flinty edge she displays even in her bobby-socks days, the hint of Barbara Stanwyck pragmatism in her most Sandra Dee moments. It's a standard gripe that DiCaprio is too boyish to play anyone not wearing short trousers and brandishing a slingshot, but like the complaint that policemen are getting younger these days, it tends to say more about the observer than the observed. DiCaprio looks as he should: like he just hit 30 and realised that he's neither a kid nor the adult he always hoped to be. He wears defeat well.

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Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Interview: Alistair Darling