August: Osage County hits opens in Berlin cinemas March 6
Subscribing to playwright Tracy Letts’ vision of a Medea-style harridan, John Wells’ screen version of August: Osage County begins promisingly with wide screen views of the Great Plains in Oklahoma sweltering relentlessly in the dog days of August. There’s no escape from the heat, in all its forms. Except perhaps one executed by poet and patriarch Beverly Weston (Shepard) as he employs a Cheyenne Indian to care for his harpy of a cancer-stricken, over-medicated wife Violet (Streep) before heading out one day after breakfast, leaving Violet to anticipate his demise and harangue the one remaining homebody daughter Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) for wearing no makeup. The only woman, says Violet, who could dispense with makeup was Liz Taylor. And she “wore a ton”.
Immediately and probably intentionally, shades of Taylor’s performance in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? rise. Sadly, not to this film’s advantage. You can’t really fault the face-value technicalities of Streep’s performance, or that of Julia Roberts and Juliette Lewis as the elder and younger daughters who arrive to complete a quartet of female dependencies, gathering for a set-piece dinner at which their in-name-only men struggle to assert a place at the table. The problem is cinematic. Wells starts out by welcoming outdoor images as a commentary on a necessarily dialogue-heavy screenplay. But having literally drawn back the drapes he seems wary, like his characters, of the light. Scenes of desperation under sun and stars dampen the combustible domestic interiors rather than igniting them. As a result, the movie acquires an uneven texture and rhythm, compounded by lenient editing that allows Streep and Roberts to outplay the weaker characters as they alternate between blazing showdowns and tired resignation as if overwhelmed by their own excellence.
August: Osage County | Directed by John Wells (UK, USA, France 2013) with Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Sam Shepard, Juliette Lewis, Ewan McGregor. Starts March 6
Originally published in issue #125, March 2014.