“All happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, Leo Tolstoy famously said in Anna Karenina. Three movies about three ‘unhappy’ marriages illustrate this simple sentence in no complex terms. Marriage Story, Revolutionary Road and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, three movies from three different time periods, all deal with marriages that are both fragile and volatile at the same time. And while two of these three movies draw their screenplays from long form – Revolutionary Road was a 1961 American novel and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf was a 1962 play by Richard Albee. Two powerful works of the written word, while Marriage Story derives itself from the relatively gentle and yet complex world of Noah Baumbach’s mind.
What is also interesting is that though Revolutionary Road and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf were originally written around the same time, the film adaptation of Revolutionary Road came into existence decades later in 2008, with the famous Titanic couple playing Frank and April Wheeler. I am a Richard Yates fanatic, and still rue the fact that the writer never got due recognition during his lifetime. So Revolutionary Road, the movie, held a special place in my heart, as this move introduced me to Richard Yates. It is also one of those inexplicable mysteries that since then I have managed to find other Richard Yates and Revolutionary Road admirers. One such friend suggested that I watch Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, as it is “Revolutionary Road on steroids”. Funny as it sounds, it was true. On the same lines, if I could call Revolutionary Road “Marriage Story on steroids”, it wouldn’t probably be far off the mark.
But Revolutionary Road is certainly more tragic than either of these movies, and this probably drew heavily from Richard Yates’ famously cynical disposition. Frank and April clearly don’t belong to the suburbs that they reluctantly call ‘home’. And the glamorous Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio do look like they would ‘stand out’ in the crowd in that place. While April harbours the bitterness of dashed hopes of pursuing an acting career that never kicked off, Frank seems to be stuck with his high illusions about himself often contrasting with his practical thoughts on his abilities. Leonardo DiCaprio with his boyish face is great at bringing out that internal tug of war. Frank and April misjudge not just each other but their own selves.
But unlike Frank, April seems to be more ‘aware’ and possibly the only hope for their relationship to blossom in a manner that she had once imagined it would. Their fragile existences are however shaken up by the entry of a ‘mad man’ and from that point on there is no going back. The third to last scene seemed to have indicated a sudden calm, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s famous choking as he bids goodbye to Kate Winslet’s April, indicate that things might after all end up being okay. But that would have meant being unfair to April’s characterisation and her clear awareness of what she does not want. Neither the movie nor the novel mentions what must have gone through April’s mind when everything begins to go horribly wrong. But maybe that is because the focus has now shifted onto Frank and where this tragedy now leaves him, probably completely stripped of any pretence, even one earned by him; “an empty shell of a man” as his friend Shep says in the novel.
Marriage Story burns slowly. At first, where we see Charlie and Nicole, it is enough to understand that they are unhappy and on the verge of separating, and a work opportunity for Nicole provides just that final push. Like Revolutionary Road, this story too involves a child and ambitions. Given this is a story of present times, the ambitions are doggedly pursued. But modern times also bring modern interventions. Nicole ends up hiring a divorce lawyer in a sudden turn of events and in what is probably the most fascinatingly written and performed (by the inimitable Laura Dern) character, who justifies the movie’s rather bland title. This is when the true story of this marriage begins to unravel in all its genteel ugliness.
There are all the usual suspects, infidelity, crushed ambitions, gaslighting, ill-judged feelings, and through the modern conduit of the family law, and high profile make or break lawyers, it all comes out in the open. One scene that stuck with me very well and which made me sympathetic to Charlie, who had so far come across as cold and distant, is the one where we spend the Halloween late evening with his son still dressed in his costume. It instantly shows how Charlie, despite his arrogance and apparent narcissism, is now the lonely one, afraid that he may be left alone and the family he took for granted can get itself away from him anytime. As the differences and disappointments start coming out in the open, Charlie and Nicole have their Revolutionary Road moment where they wish the most horrible things for each other – only to realise the enormity of their words and take the first small step towards regaining some amount of compassion and empathy for their lives going forward.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf features a much older couple in the lead, played by the powerhouse talents of Elizabeth Taylor (who incidentally played a much older woman than she was in real life) and Richard Burton, both of whom were a couple in real life at that time; but like the lawyer and the John Giving’s character, a younger couple who is only a mild acquaintance, ends up moving the plot forward for this couple’s story. Through a little time in the movie, we can see the dynamic between the couple. Why are they still together? Who is easier to hate? Or is it remotely possible to draw some empathy towards any of them? They are both intellectuals of sort, with blazing charismatic personalities that can leave anyone, not least the viewer, fascinated.
But unlike the other two couples, this ironically older couple, thrives on building and the telling of fantastical tales, to each other and to their guests. These fantasies of course originate from deep pain that is difficult to suffer or forget; and what is amazing is that both these couples, despite their age gaps, find the fantasies as one way of keeping up the pretense that is their life together. There are also crushed ambitions of wanting to live one’s life through their partner, purely being a product of that time. As the reader, thanks to Edward Albee’s terrific writing, is taken on a whirlwind, the movie ends up answering the question that the title of the play/movie poses. The wolf represents illusions, false comfort. Someone is afraid, but maybe of reality.
Three couples, three stories, three breakdowns and three ‘deaths’. Each one is fascinatingly visceral, portraying with vividness the collapse of one institution.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.