Review: August: Osage County (15)

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Everybody hurts in August: Osage County, adapted for the screen by Tracy Letts from his 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play.

Some of the dysfunctional family at the film’s emotional core suffer superficial wounds: dents to foolish pride, bruises to overinflated egos, grazes from expertly tossed verbal barbs. However, many of this conflicted clan are not so fortunate, harbouring deep psychological scars that have festered for years and are now beyond repair.

John Wells’s film opens with grizzled patriarch Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) hiring a Native American woman called Johnna (Misty Upham) as a live-in carer and cook for his terminally ill wife, Violet (Meryl Streep). Soon after, Beverly vanishes from his rural Oklahoma homestead and his body is recovered five days later in a nearby lake.

Violet contacts her three daughters for support and they dutifully, if reluctantly, rally to her desperate cause.

Youngest child Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) lives nearby while oldest child Barbara (Julia Roberts) arrives with her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and their disgruntled 14-year-old daughter. Flighty middle child Karen (Juliette Lewis) is last to materialise with her new beau, sleazy businessman Steve (Dermot Mulroney).

Violet’s waspish sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), her long-suffering husband Charles (Chris Cooper) and their socially awkward son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) also crowd around the dinner table, .

Set largely within the claustrophobic Weston house on a sweltering summer’s afternoon, August: Osage County cannot escape its theatrical origins.

Wells’s camerawork is largely static, relying on Letts’s dialogue to set the brisk tempo. He harnesses tour-de-force performances from the ensemble cast. Streep is in blistering form, baiting her eldest daughter with each swingeing sideswipe and fellow Oscar nominee Roberts is equally impressive, finally losing her cool in a hysterical scene with a plate of fish while McGregor and Cumberbatch offer solid accents in slightly underwritten supporting roles.