A poor show in The Daily Telegraph

This article appeared in The Daily Telegraph on Tuesday 27th January. I thought it was interesting that such a well-known figure in media circles took it upon himself to share such a gross mis-reading of both the text and the film. My response, which I sent to the paper, follows the article. They didn’t publish it I think because I should have sent it to his blog.

Charles Moore:

Revolutionary Road: It’s just snobbery to say the suburbs lack passion

It has long been considered the mark of a clever person, particularly a clever young person, to despise suburbia. Frank Wheeler, excellently played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is a clever young man. He says that he wants “to feel things, really feel them”, and talks of “the whole idea of suburbia being to keep reality at bay”.

This makes life difficult for Frank and his beautiful, even more restless wife April (Kate Winslet), because they live in New York suburbia, in a road called, piquantly, Revolutionary Road. It is the early 1950s, and Frank commutes to the city for a salesman/head-office job which he endures only by turning it into a sort of joke. The couple have two little children, who very rarely cross their minds.

In the novel by Richard Yates from which the film derives, the suburban setting makes a deliberately uneasy contrast with the life of passion and truth which the couple seek, or think they seek: “The Revolutionary Hill Estates had not been designed to accommodate a tragedy. Even at night, as if on purpose, the development held no looming shadows and no gaunt silhouettes. It was invincibly cheerful, a toyland of white and pastel houses whose bright, uncurtained windows winked blandly through a dappling of green and yellow leaves”. At the end of the film, when a tragedy has just occurred, a distraught Frank runs through the darkening streets, full of a drama to which they do not awake.

Unfortunately, though, films have a way of glamourising everything, and so, when DiCaprio is filmed on his daily commute and you see him and his behatted male commuters emerging in Grand Central Station, they look as exciting breasting the horizon as the Magnificent Seven. And the white-boarded house in Revolutionary Road looks so pleasant that one finds oneself agreeing with Mrs Givings, the loquacious, supposedly despicable bourgeois woman who sold it to the Wheelers, that it is an ideal home for a lovely young family. One just wants Kate and Leonard to stop fussing and settle down and have baby number three which, at a key, decisive moment, is discovered to be on the way.

April gets it into her head that Frank’s originality would blossom if he threw up his job and they went to Paris, where she could earn enough money by working as a secretary for Nato or something, and he could do nothing but “really feel”. Silly girl, I felt, can’t she see that this banal escape would achieve nothing, and that Frank would do much better to accept the promotion at work promised by charismatic Bart Pollock? It is hard to sympathise with the message of the film, which seems to be that April, more than anyone else, is brave, and seeks truth.

The novel, which is beautifully written, is rather cruel and condescending to the world it depicts, but at least it makes it clear that the true enemy is not suburbia in itself, but the tragic fact of life that the search for truth and authenticity can itself be untrue and inauthentic. For Yates, April, the one who searches the hardest, is the most unreal. She is always acting a part – being in love, feeling hatred, even being alive.

Perhaps because Kate Winslet is married to the director, Sam Mendes, the film misses this. With her lovely, neurotic looks, she is somehow in the right even if she seems in the wrong. The film reduces to the essentially snobbish point that the suburbs are full of boring people and we must all side with the beautiful and the damned against their nice neighbours, the stolid men and their desperately chattering wives.

So, when Frank uses April’s third pregnancy as an excuse for not going to Paris after all, and she rebels by illicitly and illegally aborting the child, the audience is encouraged to think that she is doing the authentic thing. If you live in Revolutionary Road, it seems to say, you aren’t really living, so it is braver to die.

My own bourgeois sensibility rose up against this. Why wasn’t April thinking about the children she was leaving and the child she was bearing? Why couldn’t she involve herself in some useful local activity? Was it really necessary to be so moody at parties? After the drama is over, Mrs Givings says that the Wheelers were “a bit whimsical” for the neighbourhood, and left “filthy smudges all around the doorknobs”. Hear, hear.

Why are creative people so down on the suburbs? We must all live somewhere, and the combination of urban convenience with rural verdure is what a great many people like. What a narrow view it is to think that life can only be free if you live in Paris, or Hampstead (very much a suburb when first patronised by artists) or a tumbledown cottage in the middle of nowhere. A great artist like Chekhov wrote superbly about how bourgeois people can feel stifled in their lives, but he was much too subtle and sympathetic to attribute this merely to their postcode.

Having lived only in London and in the country, perhaps I am taking an over-romantic view, but when I pass places like Croydon or Chislehurst on the train, I think of them as pullulating with interesting, secret life. Oh for a cinematic Betjeman to reveal this, and celebrate it.

This is my response:

I have to take issue with Charles Moore’s reading of Revolutionary Road, both the novel and the film. My ‘bourgeois sensibility’ also rises up when faced with an article which reveals the ending of a film not yet released in this country. Mr Moore’s piece in today’s Telegraph (January 27th) includes several mis-readings and one glaring contradiction. He correctly states that the novel makes it clear that ‘the true enemy is not suburbia’ and then devotes his last two paragraphs to addressing the question ‘Why are creative people so down on suburbia?’ It is also incorrect to say that ‘For Yates, April…is the most unreal.’ Has Mr Moore not noticed that our impressions of April are, by and large, filtered through Frank’s perspective? It is Frank Wheeler, and his self-delusions, that Yates works hardest to expose. Finally, both Sam Mendes and Richard Yates are at pains to show, in the character of Shep and Milly Campbell, that there are people who live happily in suburbia; they may not set the world alight but they are kind, full of neighbourly concern and keen to do the right thing.

So what do you all think?

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One Response to “A poor show in The Daily Telegraph”

  1. I read the novel in 2007 and saw the movie this month, and I love both!
    I never thought for one moment that either of them “accuse” the surburbs or the way of living there or in the city in any way. It is just a setting. Particularly the movie could play in any setting – minus a few characteristics due to the 50s (Which are basically these: There was no means of real family planning because of the lack of secure contraception, and the idea of a woman supporting her man and family instead of the man sounded almost absurd in the 50s). Otherwise, the deconstruction of a love and marriage could happen ANYWHERE and ANY TIME.
    “Paris” is just a symbol for reaching out to something you haven’t ever done before and you think will make you happier.
    The whole movie, for me, is full of questions -about the pursuit of happiness and how these two people fail to achieve it. Suburbia is not the question, not in the movie, at least. Maybe more so in the novel. Mr. Yates was a child of his time and Sam Mendes and the script writer are children of their own time. They could only interpret the novel and this includes adapting it to their time.

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