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
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
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.

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick