Revolutionary Row: Gorgeous but thin

Sam Mendes is a very good director but he has a track record of disliking capitalism and isn’t a lot better about human relations. Revolutionary Road makes these points almost as well as American Beauty did. 

Men have all kinds of ways of imprisoning women, or at least they used to before feminism and other forces sliced away lots of the old relations between the sexes.

Revolutionary Road revisits an old riff. This is that a post-WW2 generation of women were shoved back into suburbia and domesticity after their brief excursion into freedom and even bohemianism before and during the war. So far so consistent with the experience of several middle-aged women I knew well in the 1970s. I say – because it is conventional – that they were shoved into this condition by their menfolk returing from war and seeking to pick up work and patriarchal roles. This is consistent also with a riff that says that post-war men wanted their children to be seen and not heard (as was explored in a rather thin way by Kirsty Young in her recent TV shows on changing family life). Actually, I think the trap was more systemic than that. Couples wanted affluence and a stable family life and men and women alike fell into a way of life which did drive quite lot of women nuts. Many of those that weren’t nuts were narrowed.

I have known other ways in which women were repressed, or rather struck deals with their husbands in which they agreed to make nice in exchange for security. This is to say that some post-War women agreed to be one-man girls, and to put away flirtatiousness, in exchange for the dogged loyalty of their weak husbands. Such women were locked in a golden cage of their own making.

Revolutionary Road posits a different sort of female frustration, and whilst it was quite interesting it never quite rang true. It happens that I have never met or heard of a woman who suffered this condition, namely that though she had children and security she wanted her husband to overcome his own weakness, and live on her work in order that he should blossom in some unspecified and presumably more or less bohemian way. I have known women who wished their husbands would stop fantasising on some mythic ambition or other and instead focus on her and the kids. But I haven’t known a Revolutionary Road twist on that tale.

I may be being unfair. You could argue that April Wheeler (Winslett) was a person who transferred her dreams of being exceptional onto her talented husband Frank (di Caprio) and that he did indeed let us know that he wasn’t all that thrilled with corporate life. So April’s frustration wasn’t only that she was trapped in domesticity but also that her husband didn’t care either that she was or that he was. I accept that this is an interesting twist.

All the same, we have what I think is just as big a problem. This is that the film could not be bothered to explore the idea that the couple’s suburban life was not awful and that beibg exceptional does not have to consist in being bohemian or 60s-ish.

The reason why a modern author and film-maker might like the Revolutionary Road hypothesis is surely that it involves a man who sells himself out to the corporation and only his insightful wife (being a superior being, naturally) truly feels the pain of this betrayal. (Twist: yes, it’s true, American Beauty had the man as suffering and insightful and the women as bitches, so that’s a decent counter-intuitive Mendes approach.)

One of the things which is missing here is that against the 9-to-5 cliches which Revolutionary Road plays to, there was the glimmer of real hope that our sell-out counter-hero is on the brink of a genuinely exciting development in his career.  But neither man nor wife are allowed to spot or enjoy this development in his life, which is portrayed as just another gawdy enticement by the devilish forces of Mammon.

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Publication date

21 February 2010


On movies