Following a tragic event, the Weston family children, consisting of three sisters, return to the sticky heat of their childhood home, just outside of Oklahoma. The film’s title provides the place and time of this story. The Weston sisters are parented by Beverley and Violet. They have an alcoholic poet for a father and a cancer suffering, mean spirited, pill-addicted mother. With the return of the three sisters comes their families, loved ones and numerous problems. As the family prepares to cope, mourn and reunite, mountains of forgotten secrets, lies and betrayals are dug up. During the two hours we spend in the suffocating company of this poisonous family we, the audience, take on the same role as house maid Johnna, who tiptoes around the family; ignored and unwelcome. Tracy Letts adapted his own play for the screen which may explain the wit and perfection of the script that marches along, hand in hand with some astonishing performances from the crème de la crème of contemporary Western cinema.
A lot of media attention has been placed upon the input of both Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep, and rightly so. Yet, there is a whole herd of other actors behind them who give equally sturdy performances. Ewan McGregor is on great form with his subtle and gentle display of a cheating husband who is plagued by his own pretentiousness and shallow nature. Juliette Lewis is always a delight to watch and her portrayal as the youngest and most self involved sister is both tragic and comical. Benedict Cumberbatch, Abigail Breslin, Julianne Nicholson and Misty Upham all maintain the high standard of acting given by everyone else – along with Chris Cooper and Margo Martindale who also bring an endearing quality to the picture. Streep and Roberts still manage to stand out amongst such a rich cast. It is refreshing to see Julia Roberts back in the kind of film she should always have remained in. Her performance is bold and raw as the oldest sister, Barbara, once favoured but now resented by her mother. As well as the vindictive behaviour and words her mother exposes her too, she is also tormented by her own collapsing marriage and strained relationship with her teenage daughter. The character is haunted by a constant isolation and abandonment that makes her cruel, judgemental nature seem like a form of protective armour.
Streep is, as ever, a revelation. In my review of Philomena from several months ago I wrote about the danger of becoming desensitised to the power of actresses like Judi Dench, arguing that it sometimes takes a certain film or character to remind you just how staggeringly wonderful they are. The same applies for Streep in August: Osage County. We all know how good Streep is but it is easy to forget just how versatile and relentless her performances are. August: Osage County demonstrates that Streep just refuses to finish peaking. She’s been peaking since the late seventies and, 35 years later, refuses to let her work lose any of its ferocity and flavour. Violet (played by Streep) is a monster; as cunning and heartless as any of the great cinema villains. Her own traumas and mistreatment has turned her into a ghost of her former self. She relies heavily on those whom she torments and rejects the most. Her predicament is captured by Streep as being both sad and yet deserved.
The film is an hour shorter than Letts’ play. At two hours long, the film has enough time to say a huge amount of things without ever feelings rushed or drawn out. There is no central character just as there is no final climax. The film rises and falls like the tempers of the Weston sisters and moves effortlessly between sub-plots of different characters. Every single character has lost a lot and every single character is hiding behind others to mask their own insecurities. August: Osage County is just the right length, providing a narrative that gives us time to understand, tolerate and either love or hate the individuals that make up this family. The fierce script compliments some equally savage performances from a mixture of actors; some we welcome back after their absences from great cinema and some who we delight in seeing again and again. August: Osage County is desperately, desperately sad but manages to maintain a certain amount of humour and a sense of hope amidst an abundance of tragedy and hopelessness.
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