Kate Winslet is fast cornering the market in playing long-suffering American wives and single moms. The British actress follows up on roles in such quintessentially US fare as Mildred Pierce, Revolutionary Road and Little Children with another bravura turn in Jason Reitman’s dark new coming-of-age melodrama, Labor Day.
Winslet plays Adele, a divorced mother living in a creaky house with her troubled teenage son Henry (Gatlin Griffith) in a small suburban town. Josh Brolin plays Frank, an escaped prisoner who inveigles his way into their home and seems set to take them hostage. Instead, over Labor Day weekend, the three briefly become a family unit and enjoy some short-lived domestic bliss.
Reitman’s screenplay, adapted from Joyce Maynard’s novel, is set in the 1980s but the film has a nostalgic 1950s feel. The story is told in flashback from the perspective of Henry (played as an adult by Tobey Maguire). The filmmakers shoot using natural light wherever possible and aim for a grainy realism reminiscent of Bob Rafelson’s version of The Postman Always Rings Twice. Every surface seems dusty. Winslet has frizzy hair, wears little make-up and dresses in plain, homespun clothes
In his earlier movies such as Juno and Up In The Air, Reitman emphasised the wisecracking and often sardonic humour. Here, he is in a much more solemn groove. The screenplay slowly reveals the reasons behind the break-up of Adele’s marriage and of how she had to deal with multiple miscarriages. Brolin’s Frank likewise has a chequered and complicated past.
The media brand him as a dangerous runaway felon but the man Adele and Henry encounter is sensitive and respectful. He quickly becomes a father-like figure to Henry and we know that it won’t be long until Adele succumbs to his charms. Brolin is an old fashioned kind of male lead, as slow and deliberate in his speech and movements as Gary Cooper in a Western.
The film teeters on the brink of mawkishness throughout. There are some potentially toe-curling moments – for example, when Frank teaches his “hostages” how to bake the perfect fruit pie or invites a disabled boy to join a backyard game of baseball.
However, Labor Day is beautifully shot by cinematographer Eric Steelberg. The film-making has a lyrical quality more in keeping with Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life movies than Harlequin romances. At the same time that Adele and Frank are falling in love, Henry is learning the familiar lessons from rites of passage movies about sex and betrayal in adult life.
This isn’t one of Winslet’s more showy roles but she brings steeliness to Adele. “I am stronger than you think,” she tells Frank when he first moves into her home. At moments of crisis, her hands shake so violently she can barely sign her signature.
Adele seems browbeaten by life but Winslet also shows her character’s passion and defiance.