Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Novel Approaches

The two new Kate Winslet movies—both of them based on successful novels—couldn't be more different, and yet there's also something intriguingly the same about them. Both are about relationships based on desire...and that leave something to be desired. The marriage in Revolutionary Road seems, for a while, idyllic, then veers into very dangerous territory before falling to pieces. The affair in The Reader is wrong from the start, yet is built on the kind of longing, desperate tenderness that can (and often does) last a lifetime, even though the lovers are separated by age, geography, and, in the end, courage. Both relationships are doomed, but of course neither set of partners can see that from the start, and I'm not sure either man—Leonardo DiCaprio's suburban husband or Ralph Fiennes' studied lawyer—can see it any more clearly from the end.

Unfortunately, while The Reader succeeds wildly, even disturbingly, tickling our voyeuristic sensibilities with the idea of forbidden love—and this love is forbidden for lots of reasons—Revolutionary Road sinks faster than the ship in Leo and Kate's last movie, leaving you gasping at the utter waste of it all: the people, the relationship, and the two hours you spend hoping it will go a different way. (Throughout the film, I kept wondering where their children were. The couple has children, but they're never around, as if the filmmakers simply forgot them altogether.)

Both films feature high-level scores that are now available on CD: The Reader's, by classical composer Nico Muhly, far outpaces veteran Thomas Newman's work for Revolutionary Road. This surprised me, to tell the truth. I am a huge fan of Newman's film music, particularly for The Shawshank Redemption, Road to Perdition, Angels in America, Meet Joe Black, and The Horse Whisperer. Here, though, his work is cold. I know what you're thinking: "It's supposed to be cold, even unfeeling. Look at the movie he wrote it for." Yes. Of course. I just wish he'd taken the opposite approach, crafting a score of lush melody and warm tones that offset the film's bleakness even more. The effect would have been much greater—and would have served the film better. There's promise of this in the early sections, when the marriage is just starting out—but then it vanishes. Somehow, the tone of this score makes it sound too much like that for Road to Perdition. But in that film it worked.

The score for Revolutionary Road should have been woven from strings of anticipation, fulfillment, longing, regret, and irony—and the only moment where all of those things arise from the chill is in the CD's tenth cue, "April," a stunning elegy to loss and tragedy. I wish the score had more of exactly this kind of development, but it's mostly just depressing desolation.

Muhly's work on The Reader, by contrast, is a symphony of complexities. One moment it's all innocent discovery as the boy finds the woman, and as they find each other. The next, it's all lush strings as they ride bikes through the countryside, almost oblivious of what they're doing...and certainly oblivious of what's to come. In so many spots, the music sounds like springtime, leaves floating on a stream, as both characters flower in unexpected ways. Even the emotionally violent moments that threaten to blow it all are scored gently, ironically, bringing out the couples' missteps in subtle, welcome, and powerful ways.

Later, once the affair is over and the two have gone on with their lives, the music brilliantly weaves the early themes back into the story. The music helps us remember the past as vividly as the characters do, and the action is made more poignant because of it. There's a dark turn when the boy tries to visit the woman in prison, then a period of tentative longing when they begin a correspondence many years later. Time has passed visually, but the music tells us time hasn't even begun to pass emotionally—and this makes the film so much more tragic, so much more devastating. It's not about lost chances, wrong turns, or even dishonesty; it's simply about loss.

No comments: