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Revolutionary Road (15)

Lives of quiet desperation

This film tells a terrible story of disillusionment.

Based on Richard Yates's magnificent first novel, Revolutionary Road opens in the apparent innocence of the mid-1950s, ushering us into a suburbia of large finned automobiles, clapboard houses and lush, manicured lawns. Two young people meet at a party, get married, have kids and set up house. He has an office job in the city, she does the housework: and both become demoralised by the routine. A life of quiet desperation stretches before them – can they save themselves, or will that desperation just keep getting louder? Either way, it makes for a compulsive and agonising spectacle.

When we meet the story's couple, Frank and April Wheeler, the air between them is already crackling with tension. The bloom of their youth has fled. April (Kate Winslet) was once a promising actress, but you gather from the look on people's faces that her latest performance, in a small community theatre, has flopped badly. Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) sidles into her dressing-room, smiling nervously, not sure of how to comfort her. "I guess it wasn't exactly a triumph," he says, not meaning to be unkind; but from the expression on his wife's face he might just as well have plunged a dagger into her heart. This is the first scene of the book, and the first test of Sam Mendes's adaptation: to capture the luminous anxiety of a couple on the brink, and to convey the psychological acuity of Yates's writing.

Well, one out of two ain't bad. Mendes, working from a screenplay by Justin Haythe, carefully, at times beautifully, catches the ominous drift of the novel, and draws at least two brilliant performances from his cast. The director has visited suburban restlessness before, in American Beauty, and is at home among the picket fences and long evening shadows. He also displays a keen eye for period imagery, such as the tide of commuters in hats emerging from Grand Central Station (did he get the idea from Scorsese's shot of bowler-hatted crowds at the start of The Age of Innocence?) This is Frank's milieu. He works at Knox Business Machines in a job he despises but is too apathetic, or too afraid, to quit. Instead he bitches with his colleagues over long martini lunches and casually, almost out of boredom, seduces his receptionist. April, meanwhile, is far more alert to the dangers of their disintegrating marriage, and devises an escape plan. They can move to Paris, where she'll get a job as a secretary for Nato and Frank will be free, at last, to find out what he really wants to do. "Living life as it matters" – this becomes their mantra, their goal.

And for a time their fragile optimism holds. Winslet commits to the role with an honesty and intensity that build by degrees. My memory of April in the book is of a brittle, snappish woman, but Winslet's performance makes her far more rounded and sympathetic a character. In a reversal of traditional male-female behaviour, it is Frank who wants to talk about their relationship – and sounds excruciatingly smug as he does so – and April who'd prefer to button up. Her plan for a fresh start in Paris receives an unexpected ally in a mentally damaged mathematician (Michael Shannon) who visits the Wheeler household under the anxious supervision of his mother (Kathy Bates), the local estate agent. Brooding and awkwardly tall, Shannon has two long scenes, in which he makes of his truth-telling compulsion something at first admonitory, and then something quite devastating. "No one forgets the truth – they just get better at lying." Hats off to this performance, too.

To call DiCaprio the weak link would be harsh, given the complexity of the character Yates wrote, but he really doesn't look sufficiently adult to carry the pathos of the part, and, in the scenes when Frank blows his top, his acting becomes wildly over-emphatic. It is clear that, of the two stars, on screen together for the first time since Titanic in 1997, Winslet has made the more telling progress as an actor.

Yet in significant ways Yates's novel simply defies the business of acting, be it ever so subtle. Revolutionary Road investigates its characters' thoughts, their misgivings and their delusions, in such precise and intricate prose that Mendes's version can only be an approximation or else collapse it into something else. Take this passage, early in the book, when Frank recalls his bewilderment at April's despairing reaction to her first pregnancy: "Coming home from the doctor's office in a steaming cross-town bus, he was wholly in the dark. She refused to look at him as they rode; she carried her head high in a state of shock or disbelief or anger or blame – it could have been any or all or none of these things, for all he knew. Pressed close and sweating beside her with his jaw set numbly in a brave smile, trying to think of things to say, he knew only that everything was out of kilter." These sentences put you so close to Frank you can almost smell him. I don't know how it's possible for a director to dramatise those crosscurrents of feeling, and even if it were, I can't think of an actor who could realistically inhabit them.

This is an honourable attempt to get at the heart of a great novel. Its account of marital failure and of lost illusions is consistently absorbing and occasionally heart-rending. It is quite chilling about the compromises people make as they struggle to hide their fear of change. In that regard it has something of the Yatesian essence. It looks tremendous, too, crisply shot by Roger Deakins and designed by Kristi Zea. Not exactly a triumph, as Frank might say, and certainly no substitute for the novel. But two and a half cheers for Sam Mendes.