Dir: John Wells • Wri: Tracy Letts • Pro: George Clooney, Jean Doumanian, Grant Heslov, Steve Traxler • DOP: Adriano Goldman • ED: Stephen Mirrione • MUS: Gustavo Santaolalla • DES: David Gropman • CAST: Meryl Streep, Dermot Mulroney, Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis
I was lucky enough to catch Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer-winning play-of-the-same-name in a run in The National Theatre in London in the Summer of 2011. I saw it within two hours of seeing William Friedkin’s deliciously disturbing adaptation of his debut play Killer Joe, a work which even in reading lends itself easily to cinema. August: Osage County is in every sense of the word a superior beast to any of Letts’ other work. It is no doubt his magnum opus as a playwright and unfortunately this element has made its translation to screen a ride not short of a few bumps.
The action takes place in a house in the titular county where the father of three girls (Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis and Julianne Nicholson in descending order) and the wife of the cantankerous, pill-popping Violet (Meryl Streep on statue-baiting form) has recently taken his own life. In the grand tradition of all memorable family meltdowns, deep-seeded family skeletons emerge from murky closets and everyone is harshly albeit comically reminded why they left in the first place.
Osage County is a golden opportunity for any actor worth their salt and few fail to cut the mustard but it is made clear from the out that any dramatic intensity will be grappled for by Streep and Roberts, both chewing scenery throughout as though fresh breath is imminent and both with Oscar nominations to show for themselves. It’s no secret that Streep can enamel emotional realism to a role but it is refreshing to be reminded of how great Roberts can be when the character is right, her performance here harkening back to her delightful turn as irate single mother Erin Brokovich. Other notable turns are seen from Chris Cooper as Violet’s laid back brother-in-law and Juliette Lewis as the seemingly repulsed middle child, determined to hold all together until she can get the frick out of there again for good.
As with all great ensemble pieces there is a riotously good fifteen-minute dinner-table scene where everyone gets a moment to shine as Violet dishes out insults so intimate that only a mother could make them. It is sublime. If there is a segment of the film to bag Roberts a statue it will be this and if ever there were a show-reel compiled to propose that Streep should gain her own category at each annual award show it would surely feature some of the utterly vile verbal barbs she unloads on her closest kin in this scene. It is one scene in the play where one might miss a fact apparent in most others and that is that the biggest star of all is Letts’ writing, featuring such beautiful digs as “while you’re dying your hair and going through your fifth puberty.” It is in fact knowledge of Letts’ play at all that ultimately lets the film down.
Theatrical adaptations can, at the best of times, suffer from being over-acted. This is not the case here. There is, however, an unmistakable sense throughout that this piece misses the stage. It yearns for it. Letts’ play is performed at different points around a three-story set where none of the characters seem to have privacy and every time the notably absent TV-director John Wells allows his characters room to breathe an iota of the film’s potential impact is lost. It is a seemingly small quibble to have with a film so ripe with heartfelt performance and thematic density but in the face of hints at what the film could have been it is a glaring one and a tremendous pity at that.
August: Osage County is a testament to the medium of film in the strangest manner imaginable. Well’s film, scripted by Letts himself in what must be deemed an error in judgement, could genuinely have used more adaptation. Had Wells opted to cut some of the more direct exposition passages or even the travelling sequences we may have been privy to a more worthy viewing experience. While well worth seeing, Osage County works more as a fateful tribute to a masterful play than a legitimate work in its own right. See it eventually, just don’t see it on screen first.
15A (See IFCO for details)
August: Osage County is released on 24th January 2014