Love comes skipping and life makes a fist. So be careful. The new movie Revolutionary Road is about a woman (not a couple, as some reviews may claim) who life kicks the shit out of. Her tragedy is romance; she wants life, but she gets married. Not that the movie is anti-marriage, or that the man she marries isn’t good to her; worse, it’s that she isn’t someone who should be married. Love fools her the way it fools everyone who winds up miserable or divorced, by saying: love will solve everything. But love is only the solution to wanting love. If you want something else…someone has to give.
In a quiet suburb of America sometime in the 1950s, Frank and April Wheeler live an idyllic, homogenized life. Frank is handsome, young and gainfully employed. April is beautiful, young and mother of two children. But there’s a problem: April is unsatisfied. She keeps reminding Frank how a life in the suburbs used to be laughable to them. She wants to move to Paris, where they can love each other, free of her doubts and his disappointments. She mistakes him: Frank can live in the suburbs, it’s only April who feels trapped. Still, she loves him fiercely, so she persists. She thinks he can live up to her love. But his love stops, here.
To play a woman for whom a man isn’t the answer is rare in Hollywood; to play a woman for whom children aren’t the answer is heresy. But that’s April. Kate Winslet has played several women who didn’t live happily ever after, but this is still among her finest work. April Wheeler is stubborn, angry, selfish and unrepentant. They’ll line up to call her a bitch, but I think I see what Winslet saw: she’s a romantic. If April were hardened to life… she’d be protected. But she feels too much. There’s a great scene, before the final tragedy, where April listens as Frank tells her about his work. He sketches the new computer he’s going to be marketing, and you can see April realise: that’s who is; a computer salesman. She’d thought all along that when she looked at him she saw the real Frank. But she saw herself. They were never both yearning to be free.
The man’s role in Revolutionary Road is a supporting role, though “undermining” would probably be more accurate. Leonardo DiCaprio uses all his natural charm to make Frank look like the innocent party, but right from the start he’s a wheedling son-of-a-bitch. Frank is a man who could talk for hours about how much he hates his workaday existence precisely because it doesn’t pain him. Not in the real sense. Frank is bored, April is despairing. He can’t see her despair because he’s never felt it. He keeps thinking she wants something from him, when of course – she has his love – she wants something for them. Every argument starts backwards for Frank because he’s trying to prove something April knows.
They’ll say this is Sam Mendes re-making American Beauty in the 50s. But in American Beauty the hero had all the answers, and freedom to act. This is what American Beauty would have looked like if Kevin Spacey gained nothing for all his scheming, if his wife loved him with all her heart… and she asked him to stay, and he spat at her.
Most movies tell us what we want to hear about love: that it’s The End. But the truth is: we go on being ourselves, in love or not, and we have to find a balance in love between one “I” and another. That’s not to dispel the myth of romance, only to recognise that lovers have other needs as well as love (what April would call “interests”). In Revolutionary Road, two lovers think that love is the solution to their dilemma, but the real solution is for one of them to give up. If they had been honest… If they hadn’t married… But they were young; their romance was invulnerable. They had life cracked.