August: Osage County [adapted from stage to screen] has received mainly negative reviews by the critics with cries of ‘this is not a film, it’s a play and should stay that way’ and the like, but I’m glad to report that my response is slightly different. It’s true that I don’t know the staged version- this viewing in fact was, shamefully, my first introduction to Tracy Letts [the playwright and the screenwriter for this Weinstein Film Company adaptation] and by all accounts the National Theatre’s 2008 production dazzled audiences with its staging and seemingly more subtle style in revealing the family’s dirty washing. The staged version too also, according to commentators, allowed for more Chekhovian poignancy with the Native Indian housekeeper taking centre stage in its finale [think the Cherry Orchard, the emancipation of the serfs, the destruction of a wealthy family] whereas the film’s version focusing rather more on Barb, the eldest daughter, has left reviewers complaining that Letts’ screenplay offers us a compressed two hours of what was a three hour mid west saga of a rather altogether different nature.
However, I have no such worries. Set near Oklahoma in 2007, the film centers on events after poet and alcoholic Beverly Weston [Sam Shepherd] goes missing and is then found dead- it’s assumed suicide. Violet, the widow [Meryl Streep] high on drugs and painkillers to soften the pain of mouth cancer, presides over the funeral and luncheon, joined by her three daughters, Barb [Julia Roberts], Karen [Juliette Lewis], Ivy [Julianne Nicholson] and their assortment of lovers and relations. Violet’s angry outburst at the men for having disrobed of their dinner jackets because of the appalling heat, sets the scene, and we then have almost a full two hours of character grievances before all, one by one, are forced out as the narrative concludes- leaving Violet alone with only Johnna [Misty Upham], the Cheyenne Native Indian Bev brings in to care for his wife and whom Violet initially despises, to turn to for comfort.
This may seem like a sugar coated ending for Violet and Johnna, with the despised housekeeper being finally welcomed into the fold, but it’s not- or if it is the price, Violet’s destroyed relationships with her daughters, is surely too high. Actually Letts gives us no sugar coated ending at all, but tends to sway more towards realism. All the characters feel failures- they tell themselves this and anyone who will listen, all the time [only Charlie, Violet’s brother-in-law, played by Chris Cooper, seems to have a steady head]- and it’s no surprise as Letts has them tearing chunks out of each other- Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae [Margo Martindale] laying into her son ‘Little Charles’ played feelingly by Benedict Cumberbatch [reminding me of the simplicity of John Mills in Ryan’s Daughter] is one such example. Johnna’s vicious hitting Dermot Mulroney’s Steve Huberbrecht with a spade, when she believes he is molesting Barb’s daughter, Jean [played by Abigail Breslin] is another- it seems a comment on how far sane and emotionally well people can be dragged down by the violence of others.
It’s been said [of the play] that it is a ‘mourning for a nation in decline’ but I wouldn’t say it is that necessarily or if it is then William Faulkner and others have been at it for a while [there is a sly quick reference to Carson McCullers] and so what? I feel there’s more to be had and more than I have space to write about. Except that what the film does really well and, with its change of emphasis from Johnna to Barb in the finale, is show us a family breaking free from itself. Breaking free from the cutting chains its shackled itself with- one by one the sisters leave, free and relieved, to pursue their own lives, unburdened at last, of their guilt over leaving their mother alone. And Violet also breaks free of them, of the daughters and their relations who antagonize her so. And it isn’t to the film’s detriment that it feels so ‘boxed in’ as many critics have suggested. It plays to the film’s strengths. The more we and the characters feel boxed in, the less scenes we have of characters taking a break and going out for a smoke [as some critics have suggested should be included] the greater we feel their sense of freedom at the end, the greater we feel the break through.
The Broadway and National Theatre productions may all reflect slightly different ideas, but I feel that this 2013 ending- with the emphasis on breakthrough rather than breakdown- is a sign of the times. The emphasis is purely on mothers and daughters, it makes it much more contemporary, reflects conversations and concerns that women are discussing now and leads us to think less of Chekhov for example, and more about women and their place and struggles in the world today.