August: Osage County

AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY. Starring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis, Sam Shepherd, Margot Martindale, Chris Cooper, Benedict Cumberbatch, Abigail Breslin, Misty Upham. Directed by John Wells, 130 minutes, Rated MA 15+ (Strong coarse language and mature themes).

August in Osage County is very hot, which does not do very much for people’s moods. And the moods in this film can be sometimes quite grim, often angry, and manifested in bizarre behaviour and a barrage of course language. It is not the most cheerful of family dramas, but is fascinating in a morbid kind of way.

It began life as a play, winning the Pulitzer Prize for its author, Tracy Letts. He has adapted his play for the screen – and, it often seems like a play, relying on intense dialogue and quite a number of set scenes, including an eruption at a long and frustrating family meal.

One of the grimmest characters in Osage County is a successful poet, Beverley Weston (Sam Shepherd) who is immediately introduced as interviewing a young Native American (and much is made of this fact with the film set in Oklahoma) to look after his wife. She is Vi, an angry woman, ageing, ill, relying on a mass of prescription drugs which sends her high and the absence sends her low. She is not impressed by her new maid. So the film begins with tensions and really doesn’t let up.

When Beverley disappears, Vi becomes anxious. At home she has to rely on one of her three daughters, Julianne Nicholson, whom she treats with some disdain. She relies much more on her sister, Mattie Fae (Margot Martindale) who is something of a hard case as well and harbours a family secret.

Coming on to the scene is the oldest of the three daughters, played by a gaunt-looking Julia Roberts, perpetually angry and contributing mightily to that barrage of language. She comes with her husband, a rather meek Ewan McGregor, although it emerges that they are separated. They bring their daughter (Abigail Breslin) who has torn emotions about her parents and is experimenting with drugs. so, plenty more ingredients for difficulties as the family prepares for the funeral and comes back after the funeral for that eruptive meal.

Also in the mix is another daughter who has stayed away from home for a long time. She is played by Juliette Lewis, rather naive, a bit on the outer, with her latest boyfriend, Dylan McDermott, tagging along.

The more calm members of the family are Mattie Fae’s rather quiet and tolerant husband, Chris Cooper, and their son, whom the father admires but the mother is continually ridiculing, and comes late for the funeral, played by Benedict Cumberbatch.

The omission in this review of naming the character and the actress playing her is that of Vi herself. It is Meryl Streep, yet another most impressive impersonation and a different kind of performance and character. She has to play her age and project a complex personality, loving her husband in the past and admiring him, alienated from her daughters, highly erratic in how she deals with people, focusing on her drugs.

Perhaps this could be called a film that it is more interesting rather than entertaining, although it is fascinating to watch the ensemble cast and their interactions. This is a highly dysfunctional American family. Not that there haven’t been many films with this theme, but here it is portrayed both seriously and comically, deadly secrets which can ruin people’s lives, attempts to deal with harsh realities and generally not succeeding.

Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

Roadshow.

Out January 2 2014.