Starring: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper
The Weston family has always been dysfunctional with at its matriarch Violet at the helm always having had a troubled relationship with her three daughters (Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis and Julianne Nicholson). After her husband Beverly (Sam Shepard) commits suicide the entire family are reunited for the funeral for the first time in a very long while. Though cancer stricken and addicted to more pills than ever before, Violet has lost none of her venomous tongue and when the three daughters and extended family are all brought together age old bitterness, resentment and secrets inevitably surface.
I must confess that having no knowledge of the original play, when I saw August: Osage County was a combination of The Weinstein’s producing, Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts and an Oscar season release my immediate thoughts were Oscar baiting cheesy, quirky, but overall feel good drama. Then I realised the play was written by Tracy Letts, and having seen Killer Joe I was very confused. Thankfully I was proved very wrong when it came to those initial expectations, and I found August: Osage County to be a thoroughly engaging drama with a relatively smooth transition from stage to screen that was in no way predictable or cheesy. In fact it is often very bleak and dark, with genuine bitterness and resentment in the dialogue leaving an experience that is certainly often less than uplifting, but genuinely gripping from start to finish. Though it is not all doom and gloom; there are some funny moments with the humour being subtle with a hint of bitter, but as with life there is very often comedy in tragedy.
The narrative of course focuses primarily on the characters of Violet and her three daughters, and what is essentially a 20 minute set piece featuring every one of the film’s characters as they gather for the funeral dinner. The scene itself is an incredibly scripted and acted sequence, with John Wells’ camerawork enhancing the feelings of tension, anxiety, awkwardness and inescapable claustrophobia. It is a sequence that is an electrifying experience to watch, unfortunately it occurs around the half way point of the narrative and so the rest is inevitably unable to match the high standards that that whole sequence sets. That said August: Osage County does most definitely not descend into complete anti climax with revelations and developments that surprise and engage in equal measure. It is rarely cheerful and uplifting, but always engaging. There were many moments and individual lines of dialogue in the film’s final third that stayed with me, and for me that is always the sign of a good film.
One of the main reasons August: Osage County is such a compelling drama is that it is extremely well acted. These characters are predominantly unlikeable, but only because of the flaws that we all have (though perhaps not quite to this extent) and so they are sympathetic. Meryl Streep fully deserves her Oscar nomination; making an extremely unlikeable character still at times seems sympathetic. She delivers every line of dialogue with extreme venom, but it is visible in her eyes she has extreme mental pain. I have never been a fan of Julia Roberts, but she surprised me here to produce one of the best performances I have ever seen from her. Julianne Nicholson is excellent as the loyal daughter Ivy, the only one of the sisters who actually has a little optimism and is not overcome with extreme bitterness. I did feel myself really wanting her character to get the happy ending she deserves.
Unfortunately, with the focus predominantly being on mother and daughters, the other characters are often sidelined. This is fair enough, but it just means some are really underwritten but yet still have depth and their own secrets that never get the examination they perhaps deserve. As Violet’s sister Mattie and Mattie’s husband respectively, Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper are excellent and their characters certainly get important moments to shine. However it is Ewan McGregor and Benedict Cumberbatch that really suffer; their characters certainly have their own troubles but the narrative gives them very little time to explore them. Also, the less said about their wobbly accents the better.
This is of course a minor criticism as the film could not give every character equal time, and it is of course primarily about mother and daughters and the developments in their respective relationship are truly fascinating to watch as they unfold. Though due to the slightly episodic and dialogue heavy nature of the narrative it is obvious throughout that this is originally a play, but the use of camerawork taking in the bleak and sparse countryside of the area adds a needed cinematic feel whenever the plot takes us outside of the house.
With biting venomous dialogue, rich characters and excellent performances, August: Osage County is a superb drama. Uplifting it is not, but engaging it most certainly is.