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Today’s movie review will be of ‘August: Osage County’, an intense drama about the difficulties of living in the Weston family. Written by Tracy Letts, based on his Pulizter and Tony Award winning play of the same name, this story follows the relationships in the highly dysfunctional family as they try to deal with the death of its patriarch, Beverly.

August: Osage County poster

August: Osage County poster

From the outset this film is confronting. The women in this family, Violet (Meryl Streep), Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), Barbara (Julia Roberts), Karen (Juliette Lewis), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and Jean (Abigail Breslin) are complicated, flawed, and extremely believable. While the film is an excellent ensemble piece, the mother-daughter relationship between Violet and Barbara is the centrepiece. Violet is a mean-spirited, bitter woman who has a tendency to abuse prescription medication, and Barbara, her eldest daughter struggles with a sense of obligation to care for her mother, and a need to escape her destructive influence. Trying to explain the intricacies of the relationships without giving away some of the story is going to be difficult, so I’m not going to try. Suffice to say that the relationships between the family members are complex and filled with betrayals and misery.

The performances by each member of the cast are spectacular. With so many central characters, each with rich back stories filled with hardship, it’s hard to pick one or two who stood out. What makes this more difficult is that each actor’s performance is as reliant on the way they react to the actions of the others as with their own actions, something which is a basic tenet of acting, but which is rarely seen so clearly on the screen.

The men in the film, Beverly (Sam Shepard), Charlie (Chris Cooper), Bill (Ewan McGregor), Steve (Dermot Mulroney) and Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), are shown largely as counterpoints to the Weston women, and each gives a beautiful, nuanced performance. The stand out relationship among the men is between Charlie and his son Little Charles; there is a tenderness there that doesn’t exist in any of the other relationships, and this contrast makes it all the more striking.

Throughout the film the script writing struck me as being incredibly tight. Each scene was carefully crafted to add tension to the film, and while the events in this family are extreme, there was no point at which I found myself disbelieving them. I did find it interesting that in a film that is built upon difficult familial relations, the romance between Ivy and Little Charles (who are first cousins), which remains a secret for the majority of the film, is never overtly shown. The furthest they get is hand holding and making moon eyes when they think no one is looking. I find it intriguing that the producers chose not to show a kiss, it’s likely they were worried it would be too much for the audience, but for me it seemed a bit contrived (or maybe I’m just a perv for kissin’ cousins). Not having seen a stage production, I would be interested to know whether or not they kiss there.

All the family around the dinner table

All the family around the dinner table

Visually, the tone of the film is heavily in the brown spectrum. The house is dark and brown, the rolling Oklahoma fields are yellow and dry; even the costumes are browns, beiges, muted blues, and blacks. Nothing escapes the oppressive pallet except Steve’s bright red sports car. The use of colour is particularly strong in evoking the feel of the house in which most of the film takes place, and in conveying the stifling heat of an Oklahoma summer. At one stage we see a neon sign telling us it’s 108˚ (Fahrenheit, in Celsius that’s 42˚, a temperature which for us Melbournians is still a fresh trauma).

If I were to criticise the film it would be to say that I was disappointed with Benedict Cumberbatch’s American accent. Some of you may understand how difficult that is for me to say given how much of a ridiculous uber-fan of his work I am, but I say it with love, I say it because I know he can do better (case in point his Australian accent as Julian Assange). If I were to justify this less than his best performance I would suggest that given the size of his role, fairly small, and the amount of screen time he has to spend crying, disproportionately large, the fact that his accent is passable, but not brilliant is probably fair enough.

My overall impression of this multiply nominated film (Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, both well deserved) is that it manages to balance serious, hard truths about life in this family with some black comic moments and the result is a thought provoking yet enjoyable cinematic experience. I was left wondering how they all got on after the end; I wanted to know what happened next, which is always a good sign that you’ve identified with the characters. I think a lot of the patrons at the Cinema Nova where I saw this walked out feeling much better about the interesting family scandals in their own lives. A thought provoking, authentic exploration of family dysfunction; I give this film 4 out of 5 stars.