We Bought a Zoo
A widowed father played by Matt Damon moves to the South Californian country and purchases a zoo with his family
On Film4: 31 Aug 6:25PM
A couple in 1950s America dream of escaping their suffocating suburban existence in American Beauty director Sam Mendes' adaptation of Richard Yates' classic novel.
Sam Mendes has taken audiences on a journey through the failed dreams, hypocrisies and frustrations of America suburbia before in 1999's American Beauty, but where that film was lightened by its darkly comic tone, Revolutionary Road emerges as a far bleaker affair.
With a message as resonant and troubling today as when Richard Yates' source novel was written almost half a century ago, the film reunites Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet for the first time since James Cameron's smash hit Titanic in 1997.
Sharing thematic parallels with Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven (2002) and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? from 1966, the story follows Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his wife April (Kate Winslet) , a young couple trapped by unfulfilled aspirations and crushing social conformity in a Connecticut suburb in the 1950s. Frank works in a job he hates, affecting an air of condescension to the people around him, believing he is destined for better things, without any sense of what those things might be. April, meanwhile, stays at home with their two small children, wondering what has become of her ambitions.
Their social life is limited, revolving around their pleasant but dull neighbours, Milly (Kathryn Hahn) and Shep (David Harbour), and the good-natured but snobbish estate agent who sold them their house, Helen Givings (Kathy Bates), her husband (Richard Easton) and their unstable son (Michael Shannon). "Look at us," April moans to Frank. "We're just like everyone else. We've bought into the same ridiculous delusion - this idea that you have to settle down and resign from life."
But when April manages to persuade Frank they should move to Paris, a brief window opens in their lives and for a time it seems they are set to escape their predicament. Shortly before they are due to leave, however, Frank is offered a promotion and April becomes pregnant for a third time - threatening their plans and forcing April to make a radical decision which will lead to tragedy.
It's an oft-cited complaint about literary adaptations that 'the film wasn't as good as the book'. Sometimes the problem is a simple matter of scale, with films failing to attain the depth of their source novels because they are limited by the commercial pressures of their running times. Mendes' handsome adaptation suffers less from this than some, in part because the scope of the original is so tightly focused. Essentially a small-scale, two-handed drama, the film remains extremely faithful to the events of the book.
But another common problem with adaptations is that books tend to be far more successful at portraying the inner lives of their characters, where films tend to excel at dramatising events and action - and when a book is largely internal, as Yates' is, the loss in the transposition to the screen feels more noticeable. There's no faulting the actors in this: Winslet and DiCaprio are both excellent in the leads, as is Michael Shannon as John Givings, a shambolic, one-time maths genius with psychiatric problems who acts as the uncomfortable voice of truth in a world largely populated by timid hypocrites and po-faced moralists. But in spite of their best efforts, the characters still sometimes feel a little like ghosts who can only hint at the depth and complexity of their original incarnations.
Given the book's suburban locations and stagebound focus, it's something of a surprise to see how rich Mendes' adaptation is visually. It's beautifully shot by the Coen brothers' regular cinematographer Roger Deakins, making the most of what are generally static interior shots of kitchens, dining rooms, living rooms, offices, bars and restaurants. The production design and costume departments have also excelled themselves, attending to every detail to bring the era vividly to life.
Ultimately, however, despite the fact that it's impeccably staged, faithfully adapted, beautifully acted and lovingly rendered, there is something missing. It's as if, in their desperation to do justice to the book, Mendes and his screenwriter Justin Haythe have produced a perfect replica but failed to provide it with much in the way of a soul.
A worthy but slightly cold adaptation of a classic American novel that fails to fully engage the audience's sympathy despite first-rate performances and some sublime camerawork by multiple Oscar nominee Roger Deakins.
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