August: Osage County (2014)

August Osage CountyHaving hired a young Native American woman (Misty Upham) to help out around the house — completely against the wishes of his domineering wife — Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) suddenly disappears from their lives. In his absence, the Weston children return to Oklahoma to better support Violet (Meryl Streep), who is fighting mouth cancer with a veritable buffet of prescription pills and alcohol. First to arrive is Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), Violet’s youngest daughter, along with sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) the latter’s husband Charlie (Chris Cooper). Barbara (Julia Roberts) arrives a short time after, as news arrives of Beverly’s whereabouts, with her own husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor), and 14-year-old daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin).

Adapted from the award-winning play of the same name by playwright Tracy Letts himself, August: Osage County was optioned by George Clooney and Harvey Weinstein, and directed by John Wells. The film has already attracted some Oscar buzz, with Meryl Streep nominated for Best Actress and Julia Roberts in contention for Best Supporting Actress. Needless to say this is not a film to be taken lightly, and while the craft and form are indeed impressive, August: Osage County is also a film of great power and emotional resonance — not always a given in the run-up to awards season.

Admittedly, this isn’t exactly clear from the film’s trailer, which gives the impression that the film is just two hours of deplorable people arguing over dinner. Violet is a monstrous creation, and audiences are by and large invited to hate her, but the film — just like the relationships represented within it — are much too complex to accurately portray in two and a half minutes. As much as you might dislike Violet, disagree with everything she says and detest all that she stands for, it is difficult  — nigh impossible — to not feel at least some sympathy for Streep. The actress wears a look of fear throughout, and while the character may get her just desserts it’s not nearly as satisfying to watch as you might expect.

As great as Streep is, however, the supporting performances are often even better. Julia Roberts is put through the wringer with a character who is expected to be everything to everyone. She is resented by almost everyone she comes into contact with — her unfaithful husband, her rebellious daughter, her manipulative mother, her put-upon little sister — despite clearly trying her best. The scenes between Roberts and Streep are electric, and the realisation that they might be more alike than either would care to admit takes an obvious toll on both. Even more impressive is Julianne Nicholson as Ivy, who, despite being lumbered with the most unlikely and melodramatic arc, comes off as the most honest and sympathetic of the lot. You feel almost protective of her, and yet utterly helpless at the same time.

While a few scenes lend themselves to film — in particular a car-side confrontation between Barbara and Violet — the story does seem occasionally constrained by its theatrical roots. Despite being three stories high the family homestead feels incredibly claustrophobic, and while this adds to the oppressive atmosphere it begins to feel a little forced, particularly in the last act, like horror characters who run up the stairs when they should have disappeared out the door. The film is also overcrowded, with Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliet Lewis and Dermot Mulroney making almost no impression in their handful of scenes, despite the occasional importance of their characters to what passes as the film’s plot. Even Breslin struggles, though she gets more to do than most.

In many ways August: Osage County is shameless Oscar-bait; take away the stand-out performances and there would be little left of note — no eye-catching special effect, no toe-tapping musical numbers, barely even a plot. But as a family drama, starring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts and Julianne Nicholson, it is a remarkable piece of work. The Weston household is the perfect microcosm of Letts’ Osage County: inhospitable, and yet still home to so many. Pack for awards season and you’ll be fine.

4-Stars

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About popcornaddiction
I am a psychology graduate, a News Writer for HeyUGuys/BestforFilm and, most importantly, a hopeless popcorn addict.

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