August: Osage County: Families are sad even with a singing Cumberbatch
As a terrible sadness blocks out the August sunshine in the film, you've got to feel thankful for what the characters in August: Osage County don't have but the rest of us can hope for: families forged not by blood or genetics, but by choice and love.
Let's get the important detail out first. Fans of Benedict Cumberbatch, if you've ever wondered about his singing voice, wonder no more. Cumberbatch croons a song in August: Osage County. It won't soothe the ache left by the disappearance of Sherlock from our television screens, but for what it's worth, Cumberbatch sings a love song in the film that pretends "bed" rhymes with "sad". Say it with enough of an Oklahoma twang and the rhyme scheme does actually work.
However, not much else appears to be in working order in the Weston household. Violet (Meryl Streep) is a cantankerous cancer patient whose husband has committed suicide. This causes a family reunion that, true to the tradition of American family dramas, leads to shouting, revelations and lots of tears. Violet's three daughters each have their share of secrets and complications. Barbara (Julia Roberts) hasn't told anyone that her marriage is falling apart. She's also terrified that despite having put 600-odd miles between herself and Violet, Barbara may well be turning into her mother. Karen (Juliette Lewis), known for her string of boyfriends, has a new man in her life. He drives a red sports car, is planning to marry Karen and when he comes down for her father's funeral, he makes the time to "fool around" with Barbara's 14-year-old daughter. Finally, there's Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) who thinks she's found the man of her dreams and seems to be the one person in the Western family who could perhaps end up happy until all that comes crashing down too.
Based on a play, the film has a stellar cast, led by Streep, who is as brilliant as you'd expect. Her Violet is foul-mouthed, mean, self-centred and so terribly pathetic. She tears into her daughters when the family is gathered for her husband's funeral dinner, viciously exposing them and their wounds. Yet, even as she makes you hate her for lashing out, Streep doesn't let you forget that Violet has been fashioned into the horrible creature she is now by her past. By a mother who thought it was funny to raise the little girl Violet's expectations of getting new boots for Christmas and then giving her a pair of old, torn, muck-caked work boots in a perfectly-wrapped package. By the cancer that's burning her mouth and the drugs that have caused "mild" brain damage. By a husband who seemed ideal, but was unfaithful and an alcoholic. It's difficult to point fingers at any characters in this film because almost everyone is connected in this nexus of cruelty they call a family.
August: Osage County belongs to a robust tradition in American theatre of plays about families as sites of conflict. In a time when we're discovering newer, less conventional models of families — from surrogacy, homosexuality to couples who choose to not get married, the 21st century family is work in progress — the toxic nature of the traditional family and the how it can stifle people becomes an interesting study. We're constantly told that the conventional family. The other 's' word associated with families is "secrets". Every family has some. But we rarely question whether these secrets can make the conventional family, with its stress upon blood ties and norms, a toxic and stifling institution for its members. If all you share with your relatives are genes and conflicts, is it still a stabilising element in your life?
The family dynamics in August: Osage County may seem familiar to many of us in India, even though we're continents away from Oklahoma. After all, which family doesn't have one crazy, embarrassing relative or a few scandals stuffed in its corners? Perhaps most of us would start at Barbara telling her mother, "Eat your f***ing fish, b*tch", but the desperate, trapped feeling Barbara battles while trying to come to terms with nursing a parent who is unravelling and dying very slowly will be easily relatable to anyone who has had to care for a terminal patient. As a terrible sadness blocks out the August sunshine in the film, you've got to feel thankful for what the characters in August: Osage County don't have but the rest of us can hope for: families forged not by blood or genetics, but by choice and love.
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