Based on Tracy Lett’s play of the same name, August: Osage County is a theatrical affair that rises to the screen through a collection of freight train like performances from an on-song ensemble cast.
Beverley Weston (Sam Shepard) opens the story by quoting T.S. Elliot when he says, “Life is very long”. It certainly has been for him, an alcoholic poet married to a pill-popping wife, Violet (Meryl Streep) who is suffering from mouth cancer. When Beverley goes missing the Weston daughters, led by Barbara (Julia Roberts), with her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and sulky daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) in tow, return to the family home in order to calm their aggressive mother. Everyone who enters the house seems to arrive with them some form of emotional baggage; middle daughter Karen (Juliette Lewis) brings her dream fiancé Steve (Dermot Mulroney) with her but is blinded by his money while youngest daughter Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) is hiding a burgeoning romance with her cousin Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). With emotions and Violet running high it’s only a matter of time before the Weston clan explode in a boiling fit of rage.
Between August: Osage County and Nebraska it’s fair to say that Middle America was firmly covered as a demographic at this year’s Oscars. There are similarities between August and Alexander Payne’s film. That sense of visiting the lives of people for whom the world seems to turn that little bit slower, where political correctness is an inconvenience rather than a necessity. But, while August shares a certain comedic sensibility, this is a much more cutting and less warming affair.
We’re told constantly about the “flat hot nothing” of the world of August but director John Wells, other than having his characters occasionally fanning themselves, rarely manages to convey as much. What he does do is let the cast first sizzle and then burn in their interactions.
This is very much a film about family and the dark dynamics we reserve for when we are around our ‘nearest and dearest’. It’s hard not to be reminded of Philip Larkin’s poem This Be The Verse which starts with the sentiment “They f*ck you up your mum and dad”. The Weston daughters are a product of their parents. Filled with insecurities and hostilities towards all and sundry, August succeeds in allowing us to witness this cathartic therapy sessions as everyone’s skeletons are routinely thrown from the closest and crushed beneath the behemoth like character that is Violet.
The characters aren’t always likable but it is riveting, real and fascinating to be in their often darkly comedic company. At its core there are two bulldozing performances from Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. Both of them capturing the essence of a mother, daughter relationship which has clearly been a cold war that soon explodes into nuclear fallout. Streep has long been Hollywood’s most dependable leading lady and here delivers a blistering performance as Violet. Her guttural accent combined with endless eye rolls is delightful. Every insult tinged with just a hint of mock affection while occasionally allowing Violet’s fragile state to creep in when her wig slips and we see the shell of the woman beneath. It’s fair to say as Violet Streep is very much The Devil Wears Wigs. Alongside her Julia Roberts has not been this much of a presence since Erin Brockovich. Her Barbara is a product of her mother’s rage, a beaten and broken woman who is only now learning to find her voice and unleash the monster her mother has made her. She is the patriarch in waiting and Robert’s performance is positively regal in its execution.
Its theatrical origins never allow August: Osage County to truly flourish as a cinematic experience but the characters and performances are so mesmerising it’s hard to tear your eyes from them all.