The Christmas season, when relatives come together, can be a stressful one, but whatever their situation, August: Osage County is sure to make viewers be thankful for their own families.
Adapted by Tracy Letts from his own Pulitzer prize-winning play, August: Osage County takes the tried-and-tested story format of a large clan reuniting, and attempts to bring it to its apex. When Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) goes missing, his family descend on the old farm house in Oklahoma where his wife Violet (Meryl Streep) has been left. This is no story of familial love and support though, but a two hour long argument, with abuse, incest, adultery, alcoholism, drug abuse and any manner of other sins thrown in for good measure. Beverly’s three daughters return to the house with their own baggage and problems; Barbara (Julia Roberts) brings her failing marriage and sulking teenage daughter, Karen (Juliette Lewis) arrives with her new sleazy fiancé, while Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), barely manages to hide her anger at being the only one who didn’t move away, as well as her love for her cousin Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch).
In this environment, surrounded by the flat, endless plains and oppressive heat from which there feels like no escape, secrets are revealed, relationships broken, and old wounds are reopened. Behind it all is Violet – a cancer-stricken, pill-popping matriarch, a tornado of bad energy, acerbic insults, displaced guilt and certainly mental illness. She lines each family member up and takes them down with her expertly aimed ‘truth-telling’. The highlight of the film is a brilliant family dinner, an uncomfortable, shocking, very funny and eventually violent scene where Violet goes on a verbal rampage against her relatives. Streep’s is a powerhouse performance, but it’s indicative of the film as a whole – just too over-the-top and in-your-face, leaving next to no room for subtlety or subtext. Roberts initially does well to portray the fierceness of Barbara, the boiling rage against her mother underneath a hard exterior shell, but it soon progresses to plate smashing and screaming without the magnetism of Steep’s turn, and crucially hides Barbara’s anger at herself with the realisation she’s become her mother. The few relatable or sympathetic characters are underused, such as Chris Cooper as Uncle Charlie with just one short memorable speech, while Cumberbatch’s talents are criminally under-served with a meek, downtrodden character.
August: Osage County certainly has stand-out moments, with darkly comic dialogue and enjoyably theatrical histrionics, but this gets one-note after a while, and one can’t help but feel that this filming fails to capture the power of the theatre original. The reduction in running time and opening out of location serve to lessen the feelings of tension and confinement, the score seems out of place, and despite gathering a highly talented ensemble, many, including Ewan McGregor and Juliette Lewis, are misused or their talents squandered. While Roberts gives one of her best performances in years, and Streep is great fun to watch, perhaps the greatest failure of the film is you leave just appreciating their work as actors in this thespian duel, not the characters or plot or film overall.
August: Osage County
Directed by: John Wells
Written by: Tracy Letts
Starring: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Sam Shepard and Misty Upham.
Distributed by: Roadshow Films