August: Osage County – best left for the stage?

 

‘I can’t perpetuate these myths of family or sisterhood anymore. We’re all just people, some of us accidentally connected by genetics, a random selection of cells. Nothing more.’

 ‘August: Osage County’ is a film about family – the artificial nature of family, and the ability of a family to destroy itself from the inside out. The scattered Weston clan return home at the news of their father’s disappearance. The three daughters, Barbara, Ivy and Karen try to support their mother Violet, with hints of King Lear in their supplicating desire to win her approval. But as the family becomes embroiled within its own toxic relationships we are presented with a dysfunctional feast: drug addiction, suicide, divorce, adultery, and even incest. Its hard-hitting concerns of social mobility and drug addiction are close to home in modern America. The play, written in 2007 by Tracy Letts, was adapted for screen in 2013. There are, of course, pros and cons of this translation to screen and ultimately one could argue that the intensity of this piece is far too much for a narrow lens to capture.

‘The plains, a state of mind, a spiritual affliction’

The film is set in Oklahoma, and the filming is excellent in capturing the limitless horizon of the Midwest. It is portrayed as an inescapable prison, epitomised in the scene where Violet attempts to run away but is left stranded in the middle of a never-ending field. Throughout the film, characters complain of the stifling temperature. However Hollywood glamour, somewhat frustratingly, results in the actors maintaining an immaculate appearance. Their cries about the heat seem hollow; perhaps a stage production would produce more believable sweat-ridden faces. The sweltering claustrophobic atmosphere, though, is excellently produced in the family home. The curtains are shut up and darkness incubates the heat. Family tension and antagonism are fuelled in this environment and at the end of the film, abandoned and alone in the boarded up house, Violet strikes of a corrupt modern-day Miss Havisham.

The film also plays on its Midwestern setting in other poignant ways. Upbeat country music is played as a jarring soundtrack to the cruelty of reality. On learning of her husband’s suicide Violet dances around the living in a delirious state, listening to Eric Clapton’s ‘Lay Down Sally.’ This grating musical juxtaposition penetrates the heart of the myth of the happy American family.

Such a scene also exhibits the amazing skill of Meryl Streep as Violet. She is especially impressive in switching from a dominating and manipulative matriarch at a family dinner, to a vulnerable cancer victim left without her wig, weeping and clutching her maid for comfort. With such a star cast, it is no surprise that the acting is consistently outstanding. Julia Roberts as Barbara executes an equally captivating performance as the oldest embittered daughter, slowly turning into her mother during the film. And, even the secondary characters are noteworthy. Ewan McGregor is a very convincing in-law horrified by the Westons’ cruelty, while Juliette Lewis as the slow, self-centred Karen provides much needed comic relief.

The cast captures the conflict and tension between family members superbly. Yet at times the film becomes melodramatic. The fight scene between Barbara and Violet ends in pandemonium on the screen, blurred shots and incessant screaming. This is where the stage, as oppose to film, would be a better platform. We could have distance and a chance to witness and take in every hit, every ferocious insult. In fact, if there was to be a main criticism of the film it would be its over-the-top packaging. The opening sequence starts with a T.S. Eliot quote ‘life is very long.’ Barbara then follows this deeply pessimistic outlook at her father’s funeral, telling her fourteen-year-old daughter that she needs to outlive her – ‘I don’t care what else you do, where you go, how you screw up your life, just… survive.’ The plot is of course a deeply moving and harrowing one. You can understand why the characters are fed up with life.

Thank God we can’t tell the future. We’d never get out of bed.’

But something about the intensity of film paradoxically weakens these meaningful aphorisms. We are relentlessly bombarded with so many depressing stories of failed relationships and misery. It is all crammed into a two-hour film and it is oversaturated. Ultimately ‘August: Osage County’ feels like it needs a stage setting to have its full effect – an element of distance from the characters, and an interval to digest the scandal.

The film though is still incredible through immersing you into such a emotionally powerful environment. Tracy Letts wrote the play and the film adaptation based on his own family experiences, and this is almost certainly where the poignancy of the plot comes from. The acting is extremely moving, and the filming is often unobtrusively beautiful. I couldn’t recommend it enough, but perhaps try to find tickets for the stage version too.