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August: Osage County

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August: Osage County was originally a Pulitzer-Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts, and his cutting dialogue and acerbic family arguments translate successfully to the big screen in this riveting film.

The setting is America’s mid-west, where Violet Weston (Meryl Streep) is addicted to prescribed (over-prescribed) pills, and her tactless way of treating her family causes tension from the opening scene to the last. Her husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard), is an alcoholic poet, and after 38 years of marriage he has decided he has had enough. Their three daughters (played by Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis and Julianne Nicholson) are also in troubled relationships.

The family is brought together for a funeral, and it is over a dinner that the long-brewing grievances are aired and individual members speak their minds.

Streep is her usual brilliant self. She is engaging as soon as she appears, and her ability to create and convey nuances and idiosyncratic mannerisms is captivating. As the matriarch Violet, she says what she wants to whomever she pleases, and her bluntness offends, humiliates and destroys; although she appears incapable of functioning properly, she knows what is going on in her household and with whom.

Roberts is excellent as Barbara, the eldest daughter whose marriage to Ben (Ewan McGregor) is failing. It is marvelous to see glamorous Hollywood actresses looking raw, dishevelled and dirty; the performances are genuine and the family conflict real.

Letts’ screenplay provides each actor with an opportunity to have their moment and transform their character from any preconceived judgement an audience may have had.

Chris Cooper, as Uncle Charlie, superbly delivers a reluctant, stumbling grace and then confronts his wife with some home-truths. Benedict Cumberbatch, unstereotypically, plays the awkward, bumbling Little Charlie belittled by his mother (Margo Martindale). Julianne Nicholson is a delight as the youngest daughter Ivy, who is in love with her cousin, and Misty Upham as Johnna (“the injun”, as she is referred to by Violet, even though her family encourage her to use the term, Native American) is a warm, quiet, earthy contrast to the antagonistic people around her.

In August: Osage County, the weather is hot and oppressive and even the spacious Weston family home can’t provide relief from the intensity. A family bereavement sets in motion all the underlying tensions that have been sweltering for years and the honesty delivered in the heat of the moment is unbearable for some.

It is rare to have so many fine actors in one film. August: Osage County is a powerful family drama, lightened by some clever lines but intriguing because of the quality of the performances.

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