Meryl Streep is undeniably one of the greatest actresses of our time. August: Osage County marks her eighteenth Academy Award nomination, making her the most nominated actor in history, and it is thoroughly deserved. Her performance here as the faded Violet Weston is remarkable. Old-fashioned and obsessed with beauty, Violet is a bitter and twisted woman, exacerbated by her suffering from mouth cancer and drug abuse. She is the overbearing woman at the head of the matriarchal Weston family, able to manipulate and control others through a single glance (“I told you, nobody slips anything by me”). Her views have seeped deep into the family history like a poison, tearing it apart. Aided by some comically biting dialogue from scriptwriter Tracy Letts (who also wrote the play the film is adapted from), Streep has an extraordinary way with words and wonderfully realised physicality that makes for a richly characterised performance as Violet, a woman who frustrates as much as she entertains and inspires pity.
The titular Osage County forms the flat, endless backdrop to this portrait of a family confined to their “madhouse” home whilst dealing with grief. When Violet’s husband Beverly (Sam Shepard) commits suicide (and you can soon understand why), the tragedy forces the disparate and dysfunctional family to unwillingly come together in mourning, drawing comparison between genders and generations. “Don’t die before me…just…survive”, demands Barbara (Julia Roberts) to her daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin). Director John Wells has turned the cinema screen into a mirror for the audience to reflect on their own family values. Here, grief and pain has a tendency to bring out the worst in people. Of course, every family has its secrets, but if you can’t be truthful with your family then who can you turn to?
The Weston family, however, suffer more than most; not one character comes off lightly. It’s clear that the film is based on a play – at times it feels a little stagey and lacks believability. How can so many things go wrong for one family? How many thematic ideas can Letts squeeze into her screenplay? The highlight of the film is the lengthy and dramatic post-funeral dinner scene at the heart of the narrative, the viewer positioned as a fly-on-the-wall voyeuristically delighting in the misfortune of these characters, laughing and crying in equal measure at the bile spouted by Violet. Yet it feels very much like a scripted scene that doesn’t necessarily benefit from being on film beyond the A-list cast.
The staginess extends to the characters themselves who all conform to obvious types: the responsible elder sister who takes after her mother (a superb Julia Roberts); her estranged husband (Ewan McGregor); their rebel, pot-smoking, vegetarian daughter (Abigail Breslin); the quiet secretive sister (Julianne Nicholson); the shy man forever remembered as a quiet young boy (Benedict Cumberbatch); the fragile bimbo sister (Juliette Lewis); her playboy boyfriend (Dermot Mulroney).
Yet this is an ensemble piece of exceptional acting from everyone involved that ensures that each character is convincing as a human being in the face of stereotype. That Streep still manages to overshadow such a talented cast is testament to her exemplary ability. Give that woman an Oscar.