August: Osage County has been a winner at awards season 2014 and to cap it all off, Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts have both been nominated at the Academy Awards for their roles. (It is Streep’s 18th nomination making her the most nominated actress in the history of the Oscars.) The film is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by Tracy Letts, acclaimed playwright (Killer Joe, Bug), writer and actor. John Wells (The Company Men) directs the ensemble cast which also includes Juliette Lewis, Julianne Nicholson, Sam Shepard, Dermot Mulroney, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor and Benedict Cumberbatch.
August: Osage County is a film about duty, willful ignorance, toxic secrets, betrayal, and loyalty; the usual components of family life. It centres on the three Weston sisters, their overbearing mother, and their reactions in the aftermath of a family tragedy. The sisters (played by Roberts, Lewis and Nicholson) have all distanced themselves, geographically, mentally or emotionally, from their mother Violet (Streep) and, to make matters worse, she is suffering from cancer.
The catalyst for the family meltdown, patriarch Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), is only briefly on screen. McDermott, McGregor, Cumberbatch and Cooper’s characters are lookers-on, each inadequate in his own way – spineless, sleazy, alcoholic, philandering – and so, the men are firmly in the background and the film belongs to Roberts and Streep.
Violet is mercurial, unstable, combative, and whip-smart, a potentially disastrous combination in the hands of a less talented actress but Streep pulls it off admirably. Streep is a chameleon from role to role (e.g. Death Becomes Her, Julie and Julia, Silkwood, The Iron Lady) and her physical portrayal alone is masterful. Roberts gives a great performance as Barbara Weston, the sole family member honest and gutsy enough to take on Violet at her most vicious during an excruciating scene when the family are having dinner.
At times the script is theatrical rather than natural and the characters are more verbose than they should be, something that works well onstage but not so much onscreen. In addition, the directing seemed uninspired and it felt as if Lett’s brilliant play had been slightly deadened despite the wonderful performances. It’s easy to see why the lead actresses have been noticed at awards season but personally I think I’d rather see Lett’s play onstage as I reckon the film has failed to capture the magic of it.