23 February 2014

John Wells’ ‘August: Osage County’

At the opening of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, he describes a journey into the interior of Louisiana:
You’ll go past the little white metal squares set on metal rods, with the skull and crossbones on them to mark the spot. For this is the country where the age of the internal combustion engine has come into its own. Where every boy is Barney Oldfield, and the-girls wear organdy and batiste and eyelet embroidery and no panties on account of the climate and have smooth little faces to break your heart and when the wind of the car’s speed lifts up their hair at the temples you see the sweet little beads of perspiration nestling there, and they sit low in the seat with their little spines crooked and their bent knees high toward the dashboard and not too close together for the cool, if you could .call it that, from the hood ventilator.
August: Osage County is set in Oklahoma, less than 100 miles north west of Louisiana and even sultrier. As for the film’s plot, imagine that Edward Albee had written an alternative to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Harold would have had a professorship in Tulsa, Martha would have had three daughters and the fun and games would arise when a Big Chill brings them and other relations back to the family home. Only being a lot further south than New England, there’s some Tennessee Williams spice added. Meryl Streep is, as always, stunning, this time as a monster matriarch, Violet Weston. Julia Roberts, as Violet’s oldest daughter, Barbara, is a true chip off her mother’s block, although in this story the women are all “strong” and the men are limp. Benedict Cumberbatch, Violet’s nephew, does well with his accent, particularly when singing, although his Harrovian sibilants break through at times. Why he and Ewan McGregor (Barbara’s separated husband) were cast is a bit of a mystery – the US isn’t short of acting talent.

This is a film which was originally a play. Sometimes that translation works well, as in The Ides of March, sometimes it shows a little, as in In the House. In this case, it showed a lot, not only in the “exit stage left” comings and goings of the characters in the Westons’ house (how did a couple born so dirt poor acquire so much stuff?), but in the amount of melodramatic speechifying which probably works on the stage but seemed overwrought on the screen. Lloyd Evans, writing in the Spectator, liked the 2008 production in the National Theatre’s Lyttleton and concluded:
At 210 minutes this blisteringly acute, wonderfully funny and deeply heartfelt comedy requires stamina from its audience, but don’t sit back and wait for a revival. This is the production to see. Under Anna D. Shapiro’s direction it runs like a vintage car with every performance tuned to perfection. Look out for Todd Rosenthal’s gracefully soaring set, whose three rickety floors function as a marvellously pragmatic space and as a visual symbol of the family’s psychological fragility. Before last week I’d never heard of Tracy Letts. Now I want a Tracy Letts festival. I can’t be the only one.
So it’s probably worth pointing out that the film is only 121 minutes and also that Letts’ profile in the UK must be higher now, at least as an actor, after playing Senator Andrew Lockhart who became CIA Director during Homeland Season 3. Letts, who was born in Tulsa, won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for the play and a Tony Award in 2013 for his portrayal of George in the Broadway revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? John Wells’ directing work has been in TV series - ER and The West Wing - rather than cinema. Streep and Roberts have both been nominated for 2014 Oscars and Golden Globes (Leading and Supporting Actress).

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