Revolutionary Road, Sam Mendes, 119 mins, 15

A wonderfully petulant DiCaprio can't shift this Fifties lifestyle drama off the sofa and in your face

It's sometimes said that films kill the novels that inspire them – that once a book is adapted, it can never shake off the visuals imposed on it. Adoration is forever burdened with memories of that long tricky tracking shot; Doctor Zhivago can never emerge from the shadow of Omar Sharif's moustache.

I suspect, though, that the latter problem will not apply when you read Revolutionary Road, the 1961 Richard Yates novel now filmed by Sam Mendes. You may find distracting traces of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet hovering about the characters, but otherwise, Mendes's film simply doesn't have a strong enough identity either to taint or supplant its source material.

Set in 1955, Yates's trenchant and heart-rending book has been characterised as the Madame Bovary of Eisenhower's America. Frank and April Wheeler are a young couple living in a model Connecticut suburb: April stays at home keeping up shiny appearances, while Frank commutes to a routine job in a Manhattan business-machine company.

The couple's life wasn't always so, as we see in the film's brief prelude. At a jazz-steeped hipster gathering, these two young glamourpusses lock eyes: she with her glassy touch of Grace Kelly, he knowingly carrying off his Kerouac-styled swagger.

A few years on, the couple have swallowed a stiff, sobering draft of normality. Then April gets the idea that their lives can be saved if they throw it all in and move to Paris: she'll work, he'll pursue whatever undiscovered talent is currently stifled. The dream may not seem that far-fetched, yet in the Wheelers' world, the plan strikes friends and colleagues like a move to Mars, at once insanity, arrogance and betrayal. We, too, can't help thinking the idea smacks of delusion, and indeed, everything is changed by two accidents: April's pregnancy, and Frank's sudden success at the job he feigns to regard with lofty cool-cat irony.

The essence of the Wheelers' tragedy is that everything is defined by mundanity. Both have affairs: Frank a cynical liaison with a gauche secretary (an affectingly gawky turn by Zoe Kazan), April a crushingly offhand tumble with Shep (David Harbour), her lunkish and besotted neighbour.

Scripted by Justin Haythe, the film certainly has its feet on the ground: avoiding phoney nostalgia, it scrupulously captures the ordinariness of its world. In a roadhouse jazz joint, the atmosphere is anything but stylised retro: it looks just as cheaply cheerful as in Yates's description. Yet the emphasis on oppressiveness can feel overstated. One sequence shows Frank commuting, lost in a crowd of identically fedora'd men, a river of lost souls at Grand Central. Not only clichéd, this image of conformity is smugly flattering to the present-day viewer: see how far we've come, how fortunate we are that we don't have to cover up our Gap-generation individuality.

Mendes must be sick of hearing that his film has been pre-empted by Mad Men, but there's no doubt that the slicker TV series achieves a more complex sounding of its era. Mad Men captures the conformity, the materialism, the reactionary sexual politics, yet it also conjures up the style, the excitement, the newness that affluent 1950s-60s Americans embraced even while they were cracking up.

Mendes's film gives us only the deadness of its world. We get long stretches of suburban Bergman: scene after scene of the Wheelers raging at each other magnificently but so repetitively that you want to get up and make excuses about not keeping the babysitter waiting. The novel is similarly structured on a chain of confrontations and moments of truth, but then you're unlikely to read the book in a single two-hour sitting.

The film's real energy comes from DiCaprio, his spoilt-kitten physiognomy filling out into shades of Mickey Rooney pudginess: he's perfect as a cocky kid who is further than he thinks down the road to stolid middle age. DiCaprio is extremely good at Frank's histrionics and excruciating lack of self-knowledge, and his body language seems impeccably of the period.

By comparison, Winslet's peeved lucidity as April is nowhere near as compelling. She can muster a fine tremor of despair at the dressing table, yet somehow never catches the shaded trouble of April's personality. And somehow Winslet is the only person in the film who, doesn't quite belong in the 1950s. This is a problem since every other face on screen looks as utterly vintage as the cars and sofas. Kathy Bates is brilliantly bustling as estate agent Mrs Givings, whose reassuring ways are the very embodiment of terrified denial; the same impulse is readable in the face of the excellent Kathryn Hahn, her very smile pure 1955, pure Barbara Bel Geddes. David Harbour and Jay O Sanders, the latter as Frank's boss, are similarly perfect in their corn-fed bullishness.

Yet the film's thoughtful exactness finally lacks life – which is why you so appreciate DiCaprio's petulance, and the stormy abrasiveness offered by Michael Shannon, as Mrs Givings' mentally disturbed son, cutting through the crap with every utterance. Otherwise, the film feels airlessly solemn in its respect for the material, in its modestly muted recreation of the Wheelers' home, in Thomas Newman's leadenly compassionate score.

What Mendes gives us is less interpretation of the book than a diligent transcription. Scene by scene, this is almost exactly the film that you imagine from reading Yates's novel. Revolutionary Road feels as if it was made less to be watched than to be discussed on arts programmes – Dinner Party Cinema par excellence. You can imagine a contemporary Frank and April going to see it, but it's unlikely to spark any decent rows on the way home.

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker