Films that are adapted from stage shows usually have two things in common; they contain talented ensemble casts and they revolve around a located family tragedy. The new film from talented TV producer John Wells delivers both in large helpings in a blistering summer month in Osage County, Oklahoma.
The story begins with a confessional between the poetic elderly patriarch Beverley (Sam Shepherd) and his new Native American maid Johnna (Misty Upham). He explains to her that she will mainly need to look after his wife Violet (Meryl Streep), who is suffering from mouth cancer and addicted to pills.
Bev then goes missing one day, which prompts the return of their three daughters Barbara (Julia Roberts), Karen (Juliette Lewis) and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) – who each bring their prospective complicated love lives with them. The resulting narrative twists all over as the family unleashes all manner of dark family secrets and pent-up darkness on each other almost all within the confines of the family home. A beautifully staged soap opera that plays out in three acts...
Even though the plot is fanciful and excessive (essentially, all of the characters reveal a secret in turn over the space of two hours) it is a joy to watch due to the calibre of the acting talent – Chris Cooper plays a great rugged Midwest republican; Juliette Lewis plays up for the trashy and superficial middle-sister – but the two that have been rightly highlighted for award recognition are Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep: Onscreen arguments haven’t been this fun since Kate Winslet and Leo DiCaprio in Revolutionary Road.
Meryl Streep is, as usual, particularily amazing. She has the ability to turn every scene 180° as she dances between vicious brutality and wry humour, sometimes in the same breath. To watch her is gripping as you never know when she is going to retreat or verbally attack each of her family.
The film has a wonderful sepia tonality, with warm and orange visuals from the start. The characters are all always talking about the intense Oklahoma heat and the cinematography compliments this with loving shots of red wine, whisky, lots of wood and heat haze across the landscapes.
The story blends a clash of generations with the incongruous attitudes of different parts of the USA. Two of the sisters have moved away from Oklahoma, and the last is considering a move to New York – their attitudes to childhood and race differ drastically from their mothers, indeed the real hero of the piece is the Native American maid who remains patient and tolerant in the face of the profoundly dysfunctional family.
This is a film for Obama’s America, as it highlights evolving attitudes – yet if it teaches the audience one lesson it is that parents have a huge impact on the sensibilities of their children: Beware of cause and effect…