AUGUST, Osage County began life as a play by Tracy Letts, an actor and playwright member of Chicago’s famous Steppenwolf theatre company, debuted by the company and taken to great acclaim on Broadway, with a Pulitzer Prize along the way.
The film is quite clearly a play – in the same way that Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is obviously a stage play. It has a dramatic structure, it has a scarifying intensity and the characters speak in a heightened form of real speech that is more stagey than usual film-speak.
It is bleak, emotionally draining, what laughs there are very black (it’s hard to know what planet the critic inhabits whose review describes this as a “comedy” – funny it is not). In short it is a hard two hours.
So why go and see it?
For the performances. For the beautiful writing. For the claustrophobic interior scenes and the vistas of the endless plains (which the stage play could not offer).
Meryl Streep is at the top of her formidable range as Violet Weston, the bewigged, mouth cancer-suffering, monster mother of a violently dysfunctional family. Violet is as damaged as she is damaging, destroyed by drugs and a cruel childhood, spreading psychological and occasionally physical destruction around her in the un-airconditioned house on the vast Oklahoma plains, as the temperatures soar over 100F.
Julia Roberts has never been better as her daughter Barbara, as strong and fierce as her mother, and like Violet almost incapable of the soft emotions that her ineffectual husband (Ewan McGregor) craves and her teenage daughter (the constantly impressive Abigail Breslin) needs.
Sam Shepard turns in another subtle performance as Violet’s husband, Beverly Weston, an alcoholic but one-time acclaimed poet, and Chris Cooper, one of those excellent character actors whose names you don’t quite remember, is wry and genuinely touching as Charles, the long-suffering husband of Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale).
There are laughs in this story of strong women in a merciless landscape, but overwhelmingly it is a powerful drama of family breakdown, one that may make you glad if your own family is a happy one, or accept that dysfunction is just the nature of the beast.
August, Osage County is in cinemas now – highly recommended.