August: Osage County (MA15+)
Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper
DIRECTOR JOHN WELLS
August: Osage County centres on the reign of terror of a pill-popping, acid- tongued matriarch played by Meryl Streep.
REVIEW MARK NAGLAZAS
Cinematic versions of plays, even those that are awash with awards, divide audiences as surely as someone breaking wind in the middle of row G.
I tend to be among the more forgiving of the excesses of theatrical adaptations, such as limited locales, grand speechifying and go-for-broke acting, because we get the chance to see great actors in great plays that failed to make it to Perth.
Such was the case with John Patrick Shanley's religious drama Doubt, which deservedly received multiple Oscar nominations yet was criticised for being too stagey; and such is the case with August: Osage County, Tracy Letts' 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner centred on the reign of terror of a pill-popping, acid- tongued matriarch played by Meryl Streep.
Some will find Streep in barnstorming mode as the appalling Violet Weston hard to swallow. Ditto Julia Roberts as the oldest and most combative of three daughters returning to the sprawling family home in August, Oklahoma, after their alcoholic poet-turned-academic father Beverly (Sam Shepard) goes missing.
However, those willing to put aside their preconceptions about what a movie should be will relish Letts' beautifully written, superbly acted rollercoaster ride through family dysfunction, secrets and lies that recalls the best of Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams.
There's little explanation why Shepard's Beverly walks out and fails to return. However, one look at his wife Violet, whose overuse of painkillers to cope with cancer of the mouth (a bitter irony) has removed whatever filter she may have had, and you understand why the boozy once-promising writer scarpered.
Arriving to give support to the bilious head of the Weston clan are her three daughters: Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), a wallflower who has stuck closest to home and endured more than her fair share of her parents' hostilities; Barbara (Roberts), the one who shares her mother's mix of melancholy and strength and whose own marriage to Tom (Ewan McGregor) is on the rocks; and Karen (Juliette Lewis), a self-absorbed airhead who has arrived with her latest beau, the slick, sports-car-driving Steve (Dermot Mulroney).
Also arriving are Vi's sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her husband Charles (Chris Cooper), whose son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a mess of insecurities, a sweet-natured failure who comes to symbolise the failures of an indulgent, self-absorbed generation that has led the US to its current state of decline (the play's larger concern).
Rather than the presence of her family assuaging Violet's suffering, she goes into truth-telling overdrive in which the drug-addled old girl lines one victim up after another and shreds them with her assessments of their lives and the pathetic men they have dragged along.
It was probably not much of a stretch for director John Wells (best known as the creator of ER) to cast Streep in the role of Violet as she has been burning on the screen so often in her later years and playing power women who make all before her wither (The Devil Wears Prada, The Iron Lady and, of course, the scary Sister Aloysius in Doubt).
But Streep has so much control of her craft that even when she's playing an over-the-top character such as Violet, one who herself is giving a grand performance for her shell-shocked family, it is hard to imagine anyone else in the role (except a reincarnated Elizabeth Taylor in her Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? glory days).
Roberts doesn't get the brilliantly acerbic and frequently very funny dialogue of Streep's Vi. However, she is the perfect counterpoint to La Streep, bringing an earthiness and toughness to the role of a woman who is trying to prop up and extend the life of a hard-to-love mother as her own marriage is falling apart.
Astutely, Wells has surrounded Streep with more naturalistic performers such as Martindale, Nicholson and particularly the great Cooper, who rather than being drawn into the Vi/Barbara barbed slugfest strikes a more straightforward heartfelt chord, reminding us that beneath the posturing are ordinary lives and real suffering.
It is also nice to see the wayward Lewis back in a substantive role. She's playing another of her patented flakes but is elevated in this stellar company performers able to take material written for the stage and have it live and breathe under the unforgiving lens of the camera.