Saturday, 25 January 2014
Review: August: Osage County (UK Cert 15)
Blood is thicker than water. You can choose your friends, but you can't choose your family. Both of these truisms have at their heart the complex and sometimes fractious relationship of family at their core, and that's something that describes August: Osage County to a tee. A merciless dissection of a dysfunctional family brought together by tragedy, it's adapted by Tracy Letts from his own Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play. It also brings together one of the finest ensemble casts assembled on-screen.
Leading from the front is Meryl Streep in a role that has just garnered her an unparalleled eighteenth Oscar nomination. Formidable matriarch Violet Weston is an absolute gem of a role and Streep attacks it with gusto- Violet is by turns a pathetic, fragile, drug-addled mess, without her wig and glazed behind the eyes (she is receiving treatment for mouth cancer) and then she's a malevolent presence at the dinner table, poised like a black widow spider, cigarette in hand, ready to deliver a barbed comment (of which there are many) at any of the unfortunate family members round the table. There are times when you really feel for the woman and there are times that you just want to slap her, but she's a force of nature and it's another very impressive performance by one of the world's very best actresses.
Equally as good is Julia Roberts, who plays eldest daughter Barbara. Struggling with the breakdown of her own marriage to Bill (a quiet and studious Ewan McGregor) and dealing with a precocious teenage daughter (Abigail Breslin), Barbara clashes spectacularly with Violet and also becomes embroiled in the other dramas circling the Weston household as- inevitably- old secrets are revealed and age-old resentments come to the boil. It's a tough role but Roberts acquits herself perfectly in it.
Whilst Roberts and Streep have had the lion's share of the awards praise, each member of the ensemble cast is pitched perfect. This is high drama, heightened drama and every member of the main cast gets a moment to shine. It seems unfair to single any member out, as they all do such a sterling job. Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis play the other two Weston daughters- Ivy and Karen- and there's a wonderful scene between the three sisters where a few surprising truths tumble out; Nicholson is just excellent as the mousy Ivy while Lewis is great as the slightly self-deluding Karen. There's a strong performance by Margo Martindale as Violet's sister Mattie Fae, another vicious-tongued harridan who hasn't got a good word to say for her own son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch, playing against type as a nervy, anxious man with a secret love). Chris Cooper has some great scenes as de facto patriarch Charlie, particularly when he calls Mattie Fae out about her treatment of their son.
This is an adaptation of a play and feels like it- it never really slips from the stage origins. Apart from some brooding shots of the Oklahoma landscape, the action is focused on the actors and their performances. But that's OK. There doesn't need to be any visual tricks or gimmicks- the pyrotechnics here come from the words. Director John Wells has a strong grounding in directing for TV (having done episodes of ER and the US version of Shameless) and it shows. It's almost as if he's set the cameras up and let the actors get on with it, and when you have actors of this calibre, they will not disappoint.
Letts also wrote the plays Bug and Killer Joe (both have been filmed), both of which take a very bleak look at the world and human relations. The same is true here: there's precious little comfort here, people are- in some cases- unnecessarily cruel to one another, and the one glimpse of happiness is shot down in a shocking revelation which, for me, delivered an exquisite little gut-punch but might leave others cold. There has been so many other secrets revealed up to this point that it could be felt that another might overturn the apple-cart and launch the film into a place that's almost too ridiculous. But for me, it worked, even if it does rob the piece of a saving grace.
This will not be to everyone's tastes. It does present a very bleak view of the world and the people in it, that people are selfish and cruel and nasty to those they're supposed to love, and it's also got a rather downbeat view of family (Ivy states at one point that they're 'just people, accidentally connected by genetics') but it's wickedly funny in place- the script is alive with so many vicious one-liners, it's unreal- and the uniformally brilliant performances makes it shine.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5