Shannon plays a wise fool, an unhinged chorus, who speaks out loud the unsayable truths that we come to share about youthful married couple Frank (Leo DiCaprio) and April (Kate Winslet), whose marriage we observe veering from hope to tragedy. From the very beginning of the film, Mendes introduces a tussle between happiness and disappointment, leaping quickly from a jazzy, Manhattan-set scene in which the pair lock eyes on each other at a party to a few years later and a marital argument after a poor performance by April, a trained actress, in a local amateur production. Most of the film spins on this struggle between change and stasis as Frank and April struggle to be the free spirits – too ‘special’ for the suburbs – they believe themselves to be. Mendes is good at identifying small, significant moments, such as the look on Frank and April’s neighbour’s face when they announce their move to Paris: it’s as if they’ve sucked all meaning out of their friend’s small world.
This is a good, thoughtful film, directed with some subtle touches by Mendes (an unpredictable director), acted with intelligence by its leads and photographed by Roger Deakins mostly to avoid suburban clichés. But overall it fails – just – to get to the heart of its main, female character’s tragedy so that its climactic scenes feel hysterical rather than the culmination of all that’s come before. Thomas Newman’s forceful, repetitive score doesn’t help either; its refrain becomes more annoying the more you hear it. Yes, we know this is sad stuff. We don’t need constant reminders.
Winslet gives a good performance as a wife and mother desperately trying to swim against an ever-rising tide, but both she and DiCaprio are rigid at times. There’s one scene in which her character walks across her kitchen to kiss her husband like she’s striding across a West End stage. Yet this niggling sense of theatricality has its upside too, adding to the idea that performance is at the root of this couple’s lives.
This is a horror film about living on the edges of self-perception. It’s about people who are self-aware enough to have ideals and ambitions but at the same time not strong or daring enough to act on them. They have failings, but mostly – and this is something Mendes and his cast communicate very well – it’s their environment and society’s values that dictate their fate.
This is a sobering, well-observed film that doesn’t fully hit the mark but sets up enough pleasing ideas to chew on regarding ambition, marriage and ideals of how to live one’s life, individually and as a couple.