It would be fair to say that many people, myself included, who entered the cinema to see August:Osage County were anticipating a poignant family comedy. A reasonable assumption, as the comedic elements of the film have been played up in the film’s trailer and promotion. Yet this is misleading. While the film does deliver with its humour, it is primarily a heavy and even bleak examination of a dysfunctional family.
Based on the Pulitzer prize-winning play by Tracy Letts, August: Osage County is the story of Violet (Meryl Streep), the sometimes Matriarch, sometimes tyrant of the Weston family. Having lost her husband (Sam Shepard) and suffering from mouth cancer, as well as an addiction to prescription pills, she summons her family for a reunion of sorts. Among moments of genuine humour; secrets are revealed, hearts are broken, tears are shed and plates are smashed.
The cast is phenomenal, especially (this probably won’t come as surprise) Streep. In recent years, Streep has starred in light-hearted comedies and dramas such as It’s Complicated, Hope Springs and, of course, The Iron Lady. It was quite stirring watching the woman who made Margaret Thatcher sympathetic play such a callous, jaded and pitiable character so convincingly. As usual she excelled, in maybe one of the most intriguing performances I’ve seen her embody. Julia Roberts also shines as Barbara, Violet’s oldest and most headstrong daughter whose relationship with her husband and daughter (Ewan McGregor and Abigail Breslin) is ripping apart at the seams. Both women have subsequently received Oscar nominations.
Violet’s second daughter, Karen (Juliet Lewis) arrives with her sleazy, three times previously married fiancé (Dermot Mulroney) and is evidently the most juvenile and self-centred daughter. The third sister is Ivy, the dutiful, quiet sister who never left home but whose heart holds a scandalous secret. There are more arrivals still to come: Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), her husband Charles (Chris Cooper) and their soft-headed but kind-hearted son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). Chris Cooper is fast becoming one of my favourite actors. Often seen in supporting roles and his face more familiar to audiences than his name, he never fails to deliver an utterly compelling performance and is extremely versatile. It was also wonderful to see Benedict Cumberbatch in a role that showcased his fine talents. I recently saw him in 12 Years a Slave in an unchallenging and somewhat ill-suited role and his performance August: Osage County proves his popularity state-side is based on his acting as much as his heart-throb appeal.
Director John Wells is more known for his television work than films. Considering in August: Osage County he is dealing with two unfamiliar mediums: theatre and film, his execution is very impressive. The ultimate credit though must go to Tracy Letts, the playwright who also wrote the script. His characterisation and dialogue lets the viewer take a seat at the Weston family’s dinner table, share their innermost secrets and feel eerily present throughout scenes of conflict. Considering the range of characters, each with their own personal crosses to bear, it is almost guaranteed to touch a nerve in each individual viewer. For some, it may cut uncomfortably close to the bone.
Overall, the film is more than worth seeing. Surprisingly powerful, it is best described as bittersweet, although the former part of that oxymoron is the taste that lingers most at the end.