by Katie Granger
August: Osage County is one of those beautiful little films that seem to slip right under the radar each year, in fact I hadn’t even heard of it until the lovely Air3 Culture Club offered me the opportunity to attend a screening at the MacRobert for the modest fee of a short review. (Thanks again!) Directed by John Wells, best known for producing (and directing a handful of episodes of) E.R., and adapted from the play of the same name by Tracy Letts, August: Osage County is the darkly humorous tale of the Westons, a divided family drawn back together when the father goes missing, leaving his bipolar natured, drug addicted, cancer stricken wife in the care of their native American housekeeper. August is the season and Osage County Oklahoma is the scorching backdrop – the “flat, hot nothing” – against which this tale of sisterhood, family and the conflicting nature of biological bonds is played out.
When their father, retired writer and poet Beverly Weston, goes missing estranged sisters Barbara (Julia Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and Karen (Juliette Lewis) are called back to the family home, carting with them their own families and all the emotional baggage that comes along with them. Tensions flare and emotions run high as the three women of very different natures attempt to deal with their mother, the hot nothingness of the surroundings and the reasons why they left Osage County in the first place that are brought back to bear upon them. When the circumstances around Beverly’s disappearance are uncovered the sisters are forced to face the consequences, the resulting drama cumulating in screaming matches, fist fights, forced rehab, tears, tantrums and assault with a deadly spade. Old secrets are unearthed and familial bonds are shattered irreparably as Beverly’s actions send shockwaves throughout the family.
August involves asking the questions we are afraid to find the answers to. Namely the notion that family is a frail illusion, as Ivy laments: “I can’t perpetuate these myths of family or sisterhood anymore. We’re all just people, some of us accidentally connected by genetics, a random selection of cells. Nothing more.” The resulting exploration as the various different family members play off against each other is startling, striking and captivating, due in no small part to the arresting personality of each individual character.
The key players in the drama are all women; Violet, Barbara, Ivy, Kirsty, Violet’s sister Mattie and Barbara’s daughter Jean make up the most prominent cast members, with the men unusually relegated to playing the supporting roles, the boyfriends and husbands of the female characters. In August there exists no patriarchy, a point unscored when Uncle Charlie, newly crowned “patriarch of the family”, stumbles his way through an embarrassingly terrible deliverance of grace at the climactic family dinner. Rather the film deals with issues of sisterhood, the fear of growing old and the terrifying prospect faced by Barbara of becoming the woman she reviles; her often hateful and violent mother.
Though each character has their own complex relationships and issues with other characters the dynamic between Barbara and Violet creates the majority of the tension in the film, and this is due largely to the interplay between Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. One of the striking things about Julia Roberts is that people tend to forget that she is a wonderful actress when given the right direction, and she resonates very strongly with the immensely talented Meryl Streep. With an opening sequence as thoughtful and gentle as it is powerful and impactful Streep stumbles into the scene bearing a visual transformation rivalling that of Charlize Theron in Monster, hair ravaged by chemo, face pale and twisted in manic expressions as she rants at her husband and the newly hired housekeeper, Johnna (Misty Upham) in a drug addled haze. Her flighty and easily changeable temper is mirrored by Barbara when she returns to her parents’ house – the “mad house” – and affects the relationship between Barbara and her daughter just as the relationship between Violet and her daughters was ruined. On the whole the rest of the cast are equally as strong, with the exception of Hollywood’s current golden boy Benedict Cumberbatch who delivers a surprisingly shaky performance, though that may be due at least in part to his terrible Southern accent. Despite the somewhat heavy overarching themes of the film it is not without a great deal of humour, as black as it may be, that punctuates the scenes.
The soundtrack too is an absolute beaut, the music provides the thread that ties the emotiveness of the scenes together, the notes resonating perfectly with the warm stark orange of the landscapes. The music is used sparingly yet beautifully, and really contributes greatly to the overall piece. I’d highly recommend August: Osage County to anyone who has even a passing interest in film as an artistic medium, or any medium really. It’s simultaneously entertaining and aesthetic, funny and serious, depressing and uplifting, and certainly one of the better pieces of cinema I’ve seen this year.
Watch this movie and many more at the macrobert where student tickets are only £4.50.