An adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning play plus a star-studded cast: great film, you might say. However, translating a script to the screen is no simple task, and, sadly, John Wells’s big screen version of Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County is clumsy and heavy-handed. Too faithful to the original, it feels as though he’s failed to appreciate just how different the two media of stage and screen are.
Meryl Streep (in, of course, another Oscar-nominated performance) plays Violet, the cancer-ridden, pill-popping matriarch of a dysfunctional Oklahoma family. She and her alcoholic husband, Beverly (Sam Shepherd), a noted poet, have three grown-up daughters who all return home when their mother calls to say their father has gone missing. Cue domestic hell as some rather deep, dark secrets come to light, Violet lets rip with hard-hitting ‘home truths’ and all the women engage in lots of shouting.
Streep is on cracking form as Violet, though at times she does veer dangerously towards transforming her into a caricature, so much does she revel in her malevolence. She is truly grotesque: a chain-smoker (despite her mouth cancer), full of poisonous bile and expletives, constantly searching for something that will give her power over every single person around her, particularly her daughters. It’s a commanding performance, as we would expect, and you relish every moment Streep is on-screen, wondering what horrors will ensue, though Streep’s misstep is that she fails to enable us to see the woman underneath. Streep’s viciousness drowns the passing references to her early life and her romance with Beverly, which might have helped us to understand Violet and see beneath her horrific, tyrannical exterior.
The revelation, for me, is Julia Roberts as Violet’s eldest daughter Barbara. We’re used to seeing Roberts as glamorous, confident and all-American, but here she is downtrodden, hated by her daughter, cheated on by her husband, and terrified of turning into her mother. Roberts still can’t do anything other than beautiful, and yet her face grows more strained by the minute as she begins to assume the mantle of leader of the family. You can see her struggle to stay strong and to try to hold everything together even though she realises everything is crumbling around her. Roberts hasn’t played – or conquered – such a complex role since Erin Brokovich in 2000, and thoroughly deserves her Oscar nomination.
Violet’s other daughters are played by Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis, the former exhibiting a quiet strength (a much-needed antidote to all the shrieking) and the latter a pitiful neediness as you realise that, as the middle daughter, she was always somewhat overlooked and has therefore attached herself to an unsuitable man and will never be happy; happiness is something that is destined to elude everyone in this drama. It’s a shame that, by contrast, the male characters are so thinly drawn, and are perhaps the biggest casualty of the translation from stage to screen.
Special mention should go to cinematographer Adriano Goldman for his brilliant depiction of the landscape, such a potent force in the play. There are frequent mentions of the unbearable heat of the Oklahoma summer, and Goldman’s shots of the vast, desert-like countryside do add an extra dimension that would be impossible to recreate in the theatre. However, Wells is lucky he managed to elicit such strong performances from his cast, though I couldn’t help wishing I would have rather seen them onstage . . .