Family Drama

August: Osage County (2014)

When Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) goes missing and leaves his drug addled wife Violet (Meryl Streep) alone in their family home, the Weston daughters Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), Karen (Juliette Lewis) and Barbara (Julia Roberts) congregate to show their support. Also in tow are the Aikens, Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), her beleaguered husband Charles (Chris Cooper) and their man-child son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). Karen’s sleazy boyfriend Steve (Dermot Mulroney) is spending a little too much time trying to impress Barbara’s 14 year old daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin), whilst Barbara’s husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) is still brooding about the slow decay of their marriage. Emotions are fraught in the claustrophobic Weston house and the heat is sweltering, plus Violet’s dependence on prescription pills and her viciously loose lipped nature all amount to a brutal few days in August: Osage County.

Let’s get the obvious thing out of the way. That cast list. It really is rather impressive. And there’s not a loose link in the whole bunch. You’ll no doubt have heard that Meryl Streep is brilliant and she truly is. Violet is a hideous, bitter creation who uses her past sufferings to denigrate her children’s and Streep perfectly slurs and spits her way through her every twisted monologue. But of course. In the words of Modern Family’s Cameron, “Meryl Streep could play Batman and it would be perfection.” Elsewhere, Juliette Lewis is gloriously spacey and Margo Martindale marvellously fierce. Julianne Nicholson is quietly resentful but determined as the only sister who never left Oklahoma, and Benedict Cumberbatch is wonderfully pathetic as her emotionally stunted puppy dog of a cousin. But the real revelation is Julia Roberts. Not since Closer has she allowed herself to be a character so flawed and oftentimes wholly unsympathetic.

Based on Tracy Lett’s play of the same name, August: Osage County is a little too long, somewhat bizarre given that it devotes relatively little time to its individual subplots. There’s also a few too many monologues. Whilst it is interesting having characters divulge their secrets in eloquent confidence, it’s hard not to ignore the theatrical origins of the story in such moments. Whilst the script is unmistakably intense, it’s also worthy of note that there are several points of darkly humourous character conflict. See how Cumberbatch’s Little Charles propels himself out of his dinner seat to confess to a secret only to retract lamely back into his shell again, or when Robert’s Barbara and Streep’s Violet go head to head over breakfast. There are some brilliant lines in August: Osage County ready to save the film from when it gets a little too po-faced, and the film benefits from it totally.

All in all, August: Osage County nails the claustrophobia of family and the bitterness of familial tensions perfectly, thanks mainly to John Wells’ relatively understated direction and powerhouse performances by Roberts and Streep. Just don’t be surprised if like the Westons themselves you wind up begging some small release from its unnecessary two hour duration.

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The Impossible (2012)

During the Christmas of 2004, the third largest earthquake ever recorded triggered a huge tsunami in the Indian Ocean which took the lives of over 200,000 people and affected countless more. The Impossible seeks to explore the sheer horror and magnitude of the real life catastrophe by affixing the audience into the lives and emotional experience of one particular family, who find themselves split in half after the wave’s initial impact with their holiday resort in Thailand.

The Bennett family, led by mother and father Maria (Noami Watts) and Henry (Ewan McGregor), are based on the real life family of María Belón and Enrique Alvárez , with the former being heavily involved in the film’s production. Director Juan Antonio Bayona and many others involved with the making of The Impossible have cited the universality of the story being told as the reason for not specifying the nationality of the original Spanish family in the film (there is some clunky dialogue in the beginning to try and paint the family as origin-less, travellers without a definite home – although they are quite clearly British). It’s a contentious issue, one which we don’t feel entirely qualified to delve into at great length. We were certainly worried in the film’s opening that The Impossible would be an entirely white, middle-class experience of a tragedy that affected people of all walks of life, something not entirely helped by the less than subtle allusions to the family dynamics in the introductory scenes. Mother is a doctor who won’t let her eldest son drink a sugary coke when there’s perfectly fine water to be had, whilst husband and wife debate on the plane as to whether they set the house alarm before they left. It’s all very hokey and awkward, but all signs of this disappear once the devastating waves make impact.

From here on out, The Impossible really finds its footing. The tsunami scenes are nauseating and claustrophobic, with the sheer brutality of the event never in question. Despite its frequent categorizing as such, The Impossible is not a disaster film. This is not an escapist piece of adrenaline-fuelled cinema without consequence or heart. This is a ruthless and visceral reconstruction of real life catastrophe in our recent memory. When tree branches pierce the skin of our heroes, they do not brush it off. We feel the impact as an audience. The mortality of Maria and her family is inescapably evident. Indeed, the three children’s realisation of their parents’ mortality is perhaps the strongest emotional through line in the film. The eldest boy Lucas (a confident and assured performance by youngster Tom Holland) finds the image of his mother in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami as she stands before him bleeding and exposed so shocking he turns away admitting “I can’t see you like this.” It’s a heartbreaking line that resonates throughout the narrative, especially when both parents admit to being scared to their children.

Ewan McGregor gives one of his best and most emotionally exhausting performances in recent memory, but the film’s strongest scenes lie with Watts and Holland as the isolated Maria and Lucas. This is no surprise, as the relationship between mothers and sons was expertly and beautifully handled by Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez in their previous collaboration, 2007’s The Orphanage. Also similar to that Spanish language film is The Impossible’s delicate balance between visceral horror and devastating emotional investment, with the narrative constantly teetering between both.

All in all, The Impossible rises above its clunky opening to deliver a disturbing and passionate account of a large scale disaster, which, whilst it focuses for the most part on one family, manages to convey also a heartwarming sense of community and strength in the face of adversity, whilst never diminishing the utter horror of such events.