Departures: that seems like a good starting point for a discussion of Sam Mendes, the British director of Away We Go, Revolutionary Road, and The Road to Perdition… Mendes has made five films in ten years, each very different, and yet all of them concerned, one way or another, with roads not taken, sudden shifts in direction, and the difficulty of finding the right path.
Funnily enough, none of these themes seems to apply to Mendes himself. Nor do the rocky marital relationships that loom so dauntingly in American Beauty and Revolutionary Road seem to reflect his marriage to Kate Winslet or the string of famous women he dated before that, including Calista Flockhart, Jane Horrocks and Rachel Weisz (it was Winslet who gave him Richard Yates’ novel). It’s true that his parents divorced when he was five, but since then Mendes seems to have led a charmed life. Born in Reading in 1965, he earned a reputation as London Theatre’s golden boy with a string of hits at the RSC and the Donmar, including Cabaret with Natasha Richardson and The Blue Room with Nicole Kidman.
The transition to movies was accomplished with similar confidence and ease. Produced by Steven Spielberg, no less, American Beauty led the Oscar pack in that extraordinary year for movies, 1999, picking up awards for best picture, actor, cinematography, screenplay, and director. Not bad for a beginner.
This was the story of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), a middle-aged, middle class husband and father who loses his job and his bearings – hopelessly rekindling the fires of his youth when he seduces the blonde teenager next door.
Quite what the 34-year-old Mendes knew about midlife crisis is hard to imagine, but he would be the first to point out that Alan Ball’s script was there on the page, his job was to put it into pictures.
“Look closer”, the posters decreed, and Mendes’ carefully composed, attentive, measured style saw that we did, cautiously inching Ball’s brittle suburban satire towards semi-detached melancholy and just a sliver of surrealism. “I wanted the movie to hover just a foot above reality the whole time,” he said.
Film number two, Road to Perdition, was a complete change of pace, a comic book slice of 1930s gangster pulp transposed into a sumptuously, even suffocatingly artful tapestry. Tom Hanks may have been miscast as the hitman who takes flight with his boy when the latter witnesses a murder, but Jude Law was remarkable as a groteseque Weegee-like photographer, and you couldn’t take anything away from the film’s buffed, oaky veneer.
From Depression-era Americana to Operation Desert Storm in 1990: In Jarhead, Jake Gyllenhaal’s Swofford is another professional killer harboring doubts about his line of work (work is almost always a source of frustration in Mendes’ movies), and though he doesn’t have any chance of changing course until his term is up, the film’s most memorable image is the bombed and burned up road to Baghdad the marines discover, but do not follow.
After taking a break from movies for a couple of years to concentrate on stage work, Mendes has returned this year with back-to-back projects Revolutionary Road and Away We Go.
Again there are shared themes – both films are about a couple, and about the impact of children on the relationship – and again tone and treatment are wildly different.
Set in 50s suburbia, Revolutionary Road has certain similarities with American Beauty – at least, they’re both ‘unhappily ever after’ stories, though RR cuts much deeper in its tragic dissection of wedded discontent. For the first time in this film Mendes finds a really penetrating female character in April Wheeler (Kate Winslet), the frustrated actress who hits on a bold, maybe crazy plan to move to Paris and get her life back on track. She will work. Her husband Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) will be free to fulfill his (rather vague) artistic potential. They will be happy.
It’s a sustaining pipe dream, at least for a while, and we spend the movie firmly on her side, even if we’re only half-persuaded that she will somehow make it come to pass.
The expectant couple played by John Krasinksi and Maya Rudolph in Away We Go are younger and still in the flush of love, but they are also restless, seeking home and happiness and looking for a model family on which to base their own.
Freer and funnier than his previous films, Away We Go feels like the flipside to Revolutionary Road, a necessary reaction against the other’s dark despondency. For once there is genuine hope that this couple can extricate themselves from the traps that seem to have claimed so many of their friends – in part because they’re structuring their lives around their commitment to each other, and not the other way round.
We know it won’t be easy – Mendes’ movies have made that abundantly clear – but the longer their journey goes on the more optimistic we feel about them. That’s heartening in itself, and for Britain’s most footloose filmmaker, another welcome departure.
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