The Weston family have long since gone their separate ways, but when a family tragedy brings them back to the place they grew up, secrets are revealed and the women of the family learn more about themselves and the lives they have created. Based on the Tracy Letts play of the same name, it would be be easy for the sheer amount of plots, and the level of ‘acting’ going on, to overwhelm the emotional heart of August: Osage County, but careful direction by John Wells, and standout performances from Meryl Streep (surprise!) and Julia Roberts anchor this story of family dysfunction.
Meryl Streep dominates the screen as Violet; the mother of the Weston family who has long since allowed her disappointment at life to manifest in an addiction to narcotics. Diagnosed with cancer, Violet seems content to bounce around her home until her husband Beverly (Sam Shepard) disappears. Steep is forceful and cruel, but she allows Violet a degree of understanding of her own cruelty, and warmth shines through in her relationship with her sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale). Such is the strength of Streep’s performance that the audience sympathises with Violet, even as her actions turn from thoughtless to downright cruel. Julia Roberts reminds us all of her ability as an actress with her performance as Barbara. Just as forceful and domineering as her mother, Barbara’s desire to badger and control those around her hides a layer of vulnerability and pain. Roberts holds her own against Streep and the confrontations between the two – of which there are many – are horrifying but engaging. Juliette Lewis plays Barbara’s frivolous sister Karen and Julianne Nicholson strikes a balance between the caustic Barbara and the vapid Karen, as Ivy. The rest of the cast is made up of Chris Cooper as Charlie, uncle to the Weston girls who comes off just as cruel as his sister-in-law but has kindness and a good heart underneath, Ewan McGregor as Barbara’s kind and gentle husband who reaches the end of his tether, Dermot Mulroney as a menacing playboy, Abigail Breslin as the granddaughter of this dysfunctional family, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Little Charles.
The women fare much better than the men here; Benedict Cumberbatch feels slightly miscast as the gentle but overwhelmed Little Charlie, but this could be because we are used to him taking on strong roles and this is a change of direction for the actor. Ewan McGregor fares better than Cumberbatch as his story is slowly revealed and Chris Cooper does wonderful things with one speech.
It is obvious, when watching August: Osage County, that this is a film based on a stage play and although the story was lovingly adapted, at times the film ends up feeling as theatrical and constrained as Roman Polanski’s Carnage, and the actors often play everything to the rafters. This, however, is what also works in the film’s favour; containing the family in the house – apparently due to the heat outside – means that tempers quickly become frayed and secrets are blurted with little care for the consequences. The house is as haunted by the fast as the family are; once grand and now decaying the space is filled with dark corners and whispered secrets even as it isolates the family from the world around them.
It is easy to see that director John Wells allowed his cast to ramp up the melodrama, but this is where the film starts to wear lightly thin; the shouting and teasing become tiresome after a while. Eventually, people walk away from the confrontations, leaving an unfinished feeling about the story, even though it is hinted that history will repeat itself and Osage County will claim its next victim. It is also easy to see why Tracy Letts’s story would work well on stage and although the story is affecting and tragic, reining in the tale could have made it more so, and allowed the real tragedy to show through.
In all, August: Osage County is a film that will leave audiences thinking that maybe their family is not so bad after all. Drama turns to melodrama as secrets are revealed and Streep turns to puppet master as she abuses and criticises those she claims to love. Through the shouting – and there is a lot of it – a tragic, engaging and affecting story emerges and Roberts, Cooper and McGregor shine in a film filled with strong performances.