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August: Osage County

Film-Toronto PreviewDirected by John Wells
Stars Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis

As the final leftovers of Christmas lunch disappear, August: Osage County seems a timely reminder of the joys of family and how excruciating a reunion with them can be.

A family tragedy brings the strong willed women of the Weston family back together. With her marriage already in distress, Barbara Weston (Julia Roberts) must survive the next couple of days with her drug-addled matriarch of a mother (Meryl Streep) and her sisters in the small country town from which she fled. As the reunion progresses, tensions simmer, fights burst out, and a surprising number of skeletons tumble out of the family closet.

August: Osage County is the star-studded screen adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer-winning play. With Letts’ also writing the screenplay, the stage DNA of this piece is extremely evident in every cell of its being (not the least of which being its long winded title, which rolls off the tongue like a brick). If this was an original script, its tone, pacing, performances and characterisation would all be very different. That’s not to say it is a bad thing, just that its heritage is noticeable in the long dialogue scenes and the reliance on limited locations. As recompense however we get a strong drama with some darkly comedic elements. Its razor sharp wit is so honed that at times it functions like a stiletto. It is a powerful script, but occasionally uncomfortable to watch. In part this is due to the universal nature of its themes. Audiences will find something relatable in the family dynamics, although probably not as extreme or catastrophic as in this case.

With such a dialogue driven script and ensemble cast, performance is key for this film. Again the plate smashing, door slamming melodrama reeks of the stage, but with such a great cast performing these acts it is easy to just get caught up in the moment. Meryl Streep dominates as the formidable family head, Violet Weston, lurching from monstrous gargoyle to confused object of pity. It is a powerful performance, never leaving the audience (or her children) sure as to whether she is deserving of hate or sympathy. Julia Roberts is in no-nonsense mode as the older sibling who has abandoned family responsibility in an attempt to pursue her own life, more than holding her own against an imposing Streep. Benedict Cumberbatch is also worthy of note, as it is interesting to see him cast against type as the bumbling and earnest Little Charles.

Theatrical but full of solid performances, August: Osage County is a worthy adaptation, with its stage roots clearly showing. Cleverly written with great characterisation, at times it cuts uncomfortably close to the bone when it comes to representing family. Worth viewing if you can bear the discomfort of being at one of the worst family reunions ever.


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