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John Wells adapts Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play August: Osage County to screen with an outstanding cast: Meryl Streep, now in a mould firmly welded to court the big awards; Julia Roberts in a performance second to her career’s peak in Erin Brokovich; the talented Chris Cooper who quietly commands his presence in a heavily theatrical, over-populated canvas; Margo Martindale, more effective as a nasty old hat than Streep; Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Sam Shepherd, Dermot Mulroney and Julianne Nicholson in finely-pitched smaller roles and Abigail Breslin at her precocious best.

Yet the film lacks the pulse and expanse of cinema. It is more a play on screen—with verbal duels propelling scenes to a crescendo and long set pieces unfolding laboriously inside the family home in which the drama is set. I have not watched the play, but it is well known that the play is much longer than two hours, this film’s running time. Set in Oklahoma, the only ingenuous cinematic flourish in Wells’ adaptation is the way he uses the landscape. Characters, desperate for escape from their situations, run into the yellow and green fields, finally becoming dots and tripping over. Instead of freedom, the fields are a metaphor for claustrophobia.

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A still from the film

The embittered lot includes Violet’s eldest daughter Barbara (Roberts), a Violet in the making, the only one who can counter her mother’s vile and viciousness. Ivy (Nicholson) is the sane daughter and Karen (Lewis), the youngest, a scattered woman who survives her mother’s taunts with vacuous grins and a knack for hooking up with the wrong man. This family, along with that of Violet’s sister’s, share a secret that sets up an explosive climax.

Roberts ekes out the daughter who loathes her mother as well as feels proud about being similar to her, with histrionics that suits the camera, whereas Streep overemphasizes every frame she is in and every dialogue she utters, making the film seem laboured in its entirety. She so ferociously brings Violet alive, that ultimately there’s little room for sympathy for the character. She is almost larger than life.

American dysfunction can be electrifying and ripe for drama. It is as old as Philip Roth, if not older. Authors and film-makers have used it often with great success. Wells’ translation is not gratifying because he does not explore the elasticity and scope of cinema—telling much more than he shows. The film’s narrow intensity (written for screen by Letts) does not make it profound either.

August: Osage County releases in select PVR theatres as part of PVR’s Directors Rare series on Friday.

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