Award ceremonies tend to favour the serious over the light-hearted, angst over humour, the weighty over the breezy. There may be many reasons for this, not least perhaps being a caution at being seen as intellectually inferior by honouring that which is lighter in tone. If, however, the theory is correct that comedy and tragedy are but a heartbeat apart, then any biased by various awards bodies is all the more ignorant. Consider Shakespeare, for instance: Much Ado About Nothing and Romeo And Juliet have more or less identical plots, with marriage ceremonies conducted in secret, the underhand assistance of a member of the clergy and a faked death. The former’s only a more-or-less literal heartbeat away from the latter. Reading or viewing the two together inevitably deepens the experience, casting fresh light on characters and turnings of plot in both.
Sam Mendes isn’t Shakespeare, but it seems to me that he’s up to something of a similar nature. Revolutionary Road is the domestic chamber piece recast as an All-American tragedy, where the death of dreams is equally as tragic as loss of a loved one. His latest, Away We Go is another close-up portrait of another All-American relationship, but of a sweeter, apple-pie, flavour. Others come into the couple’s orbit: in this one on the point of the birth of their first child as against the previous film’s house purchase. They are both couples let down – the one by the suburban dream, the other by people. One couple spins helplessly and inevitably towards tragedy; while the couple at the centre of Away We Go bumble agreeably along, discovering that they’re the only really sane ones in a world that’s gone mad since they moved out to the sticks to be near the in-laws.
As always with a Mendes-helmed film there’s much to like – the cinematography, the performances, the script (especially as this one’s from married couple Dave Eggars and Vendela Vida, a kind of post-modern literary celeb-couple). Among the supporting cast there are some great moments as a variety of fine actors ply their trade – most memorably for me, Allison Janney. Taken separately these characters are fine; all together and there’s a danger of weirdness-indigestion, they’re existence and purpose being to highlight the sane-ness of the central couple.
It is, though, the central couple who save it. I’ve heard it said that this film is for those with children, who will recognise various staging posts in that life transition; many without children have found this smug or alienating, Maybe. My wife and I, though, don’t have children and are fine with that. My overriding impression (my wife hasn’t seen it yet) was not of smugness but rather the cool refreshment of a central couple who are relationally healthy and emotionally balanced. We need more like them. In the context of the film, that may have required some over-egging of the profile of the supporting cast, but no matter. Thinking now of the all too real relationships I recognised in Revolutionary Road, it makes me both cry and laugh all the more. The more I think, the more I wonder if Sam Mendes really is the poet our times need.