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August: Osage County is less than the sum of its parts

Meryl Streep - Oscar worthy? Dominic Lipinski/PA

This article contains spoilers.

John Wells’ film August: Osage County tells the story of a family which has gathered for the funeral of its father. Ostensibly, they are also there to help its ill and drug-addicted mother Violet, played by Meryl Streep, to pick up the pieces after her husband’s suicide. But it is also a portrait of fragmentation: by the end, Streep’s Violet is left rattling around the decaying family home, her mind apparently as broken as the plates whose pieces litter the floor after the second of the film’s two devastating arguments, both of which are fought around the dinner table.

These fights are punishing displays, and the punishments are passed from mother to daughter. They began, we hear, with Violet’s mother tormenting her as a child with an exquisitely cruel Christmas present. Violet recounts this story almost with admiration, and she too finds vindictiveness irresistible, dispensing it frequently and with relish.

The eldest of her children, Barbara (Julia Roberts) knows how to mete it out too, humiliating her vegetarian teenage daughter by claiming to have found her eating a cheeseburger, and slapping her after she has been groomed by her aunt’s fiancé. Even Barbara’s plea to her daughter to survive her is a pre-emptive punishment for the pain she could cause: “Don’t die before me” says Roberts, coldly. This narrative of punishing mothers is completed by an exception to prove the rule: it turns out that the only woman capable of ending this generational cycle of punishment, Julianne Nicholson’s Ivy, does not have a womb.

August: Osage County.

For Streep’s Violet, life is punishment from which she cannot free herself by dying. Her failure to make an end is highlighted by a performance which moves restlessly from corpse to ghost and back again: the one reminiscent of the Streep of Sophie’s Choice, spectrally pale with cropped tufts of brittle, moulting hair, the other recalling Elizabeth Taylor in her war-paint with out-size shades and jet-black wig. As, one by one, her daughters leave, this fragmented matriarch remains restlessly but relentlessly alive, coming to rest finally (but without finality) in the lap of her Cheyenne housekeeper Misty Upham’s Johnna.

Elizabeth Taylor. PA

This post-colonial pietà – which nods ironically to Jane Eyre: the dark-skinned woman in this attic offering sanity and comfort to her tormented white mistress – was to be the final image of the film. However, test audiences reportedly rebelled against it, wanting to know what happened to Barbara. So we are given a coda, in which Roberts’ character stops her pick-up to gaze over the plains before driving west, into the sunset and back to her ailing marriage and daughter. These two endings are less than the sum of their parts because each ends what have been, in effect, two different films.

August: Osage County began as Tracy Letts’ play, which centred on Violet’s house as an image of the family: its huge, skeletal structure dominated the Steppenwolf Theatre Company production which made it famous. In making the film, however, Wells is understandably reluctant to confine himself within four walls. He therefore has to make its story reflect something more than just the house, and he chooses the Oklahoma plains, opening with long shots of their expanse while we are told in voiceover that they are “a spiritual affliction”.

Wells has tried, therefore, to make a film about settlers, in a punning sense: both about the whites who took ownership of the plains, building incongruous colonial houses, and about the women confined in those houses who, in psychoanalytic parlance, also settled (they compromised, and live with their resentment). When the men and children move on to more fertile ground (a subject over which the women in this film obsess), the women are left, drying out in the sun. Roberts’ Barbara is an attempt to personify this scenery: she renounces her customary, luminous charm and resists the theatricality of her lines to become – there is no other word – plain.

But the film does not belong in this landscape. It takes only one brief detour into the fields when Violet makes a bizarre bid for freedom, pursued by Barbara. This episode does not generate either action or dialogue because the film does not belong here any more than Streep’s Violet does. Her virtuosic cruelty – like the screenplay it dominates – is both theatrical and domestic. It has no relationship with the wider environment and this seems to be the (rather clunky and questionable) point of the image of Violet in the lap of the Cheyenne Johnna.

We are left then, with a film which is crucially indecisive. It belongs in the house but wishes it could get outside. It is about a family, but would like to reflect a nation. It suggests the play it was and the film it might have been. Streep’s performance belongs to the former, and Roberts’ to the latter. In the right film, either might deserve an Oscar, but August: Osage County tries to be both of these films, and therefore, is neither.

See further Oscars 2014 coverage on The Conversation.

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