August: Osage County is, as the poster states, a film adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play of the same name. Premiered in 2007, the tone and subject matter align the play with the work of the great American writer Arthur Miller. The themes of family disintegration and hidden secrets are prominent in both Letts’ work and Miller classics such as All My Sons and Death Of A Salesman, both playwrights having the extraordinary talent to access and display the highest forms of emotion in the must mundane of settings. The difficult task of transitioning from stage to screen is one of the most challenging in cinema, but hopes were high for Letts’ latest venture as his previous adaptations, 2006’s Bug and 2011’s Killer Joe had succeeded in becoming stand alone, authentic motion picture experiences. With such a promising track record, could August: Osage County, the story of an extended family who congregate for the funeral of their patriarch and the chaos that proceeds it, follow suit?
The answer, if one has to be brutally honest, is no. The overwhelming feeling whilst watching the film is that it simply is not cinematic enough. The majority of the picture is set within the confines of the Weston family home, and the intense claustrophobia that this sort of set would have created inside a theatre is pretty much lost when displayed on the big screen. The motif of stifling heat that the characters continue to reference throughout the narrative is lost on an audience member sat comfortably in an air conditioned cinema, something, for example, that was not the case in the abrasive and steam filled The Paperboy. The film is structured around a number of key scenes in which the majority of characters are either stationary at a dinner table or stationary somewhere else in the house, and there is something about the staging of these set pieces that is fundamentally a trademark of the theatre. This is no fault of director John Wells, who exhausts all of the camera angles and shots that he can, but the fact remains that two hours of, admittedly sizzling and enthralling dialogue, does not allow for a film to stretch its cinematic legs. However, I hope you have made it this far in my review, as here is the point at which I tell you that in the case of August: Osage County, none of these flaws matter to me, none of them matter at all.
A dialogue and character heavy film such as this lives and dies by its cast, and you will be hard pushed to find a more talented and enjoyable ensemble of actors for the rest of the year. Meryl Streep continues to do what Meryl Streep does as the vicious and drug addicted matriarch Violet, chewing up and spitting out the furniture with every line of dialogue expertly and effortlessly executed. It is the harshest role I have seen her play and one of the most acerbic characters I have ever witnessed on screen. Following in her footsteps is Julia Roberts as eldest daughter Barbara, a woman who can be equally harsh and wants so desperately not to become her mother whilst at the same time is doing just that. The performance is arguably Roberts’ best since her Oscar winning turn in 2000’s Erin Brockovich, and the tense and explosive scenes between her and Streep are the absolute highlight of the picture. The rest of the star studded cast are all on fine form and manage to keep up with the magic that Roberts and Streep create, special mention going to Margo Martindale as Violet’s sharp tongued sister Mattie Fae. Martindale seems to be one of those actresses, much like Allison Janney or Kathy Najimy, who appears to have a small role in everything that I love. It was a treat, here, for her to have more screen time in a role that suited her boisterous, outlandish style of acting.
Overall, August: Osage County is an average film that contains some of the most glorious performances I have witnessed in the last five years. This appears to be the general consensus, being reflected in the racking up of several major acting nominations but little recognition for the picture as a whole. Yes, the film is effectively a play that has been recorded and released in movie theatres, but I am a fan of theatre and plays of this gritty nature in particular. Never in a million years would a cast of this calibre find the scheduling time to come together and perform August: Osage County on a Broadway stage, so why not have them do it behind a camera in the medium with which they are most comfortable? I have noted in several of my recent reviews such as 12 Years A Slave and Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, that whilst the films have been of a far better cinematic quality, I would not be rushing back to see them again any time soon. The opposite can be said for this. The sight of Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep tearing chunks out of each other with their words and at time their hands is truly something to behold. It was a joy to be in the company of these group of actors, most of whom I feel are perfect casting and irreplaceable in their respective roles. I am heavily influenced in my film choices by star power, and August: Osage County hit my sweet spot in more ways than I thought possible.