The War of the Roses (1989)

When it’s on: Monday, 23 July (10.50 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

The War of the Roses was an opportunity for Danny DeVito to reunite with his co-stars from Romancing the Stone and The Jewel of the Nile, Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner. The three were friends at this point, which meant easy chemistry both before and behind the camera, but it also represented a chance to produce something altogether edgier. Those earlier films were harmless, proto-Indiana Jones adventure romps. Several years later, the sight of Douglas – now approaching middle-age and hitting more serious roles – in action man mode would have been a bit silly, so the trio went for a different sort of film.

DeVito had scored a minor directorial hit with Throw Momma from the Train, a comedy update of Strangers on a Train with very dark comic undertones. The vein was tapped further with The War of the Roses, a tale of marriage breakdown in which neither spouse is prepared to give up the house they’ve paid for and turned into a home. As both partners of the Rose clan become increasingly desperate in their attempts to see off the other, the things they’re willing to do – really horrible, spiteful acts in some instances – turn nastier.

There’s rarely anything funny about divorce, but DeVito and screenwriter Michael Leeson (from the world of endless sitcom scripts, including work for DeVito’s Taxi, and the saccharine Cosby Show) make the show work by giving both Roses reasons for their behaviour. The life of the relationship is played from its opening act to the moment things start falling apart, depicting in toe-curling details those things about long-term partners that turn increasingly irritating, and the developing fault lines within the Roses’ marital home that spill into middle age. Douglas had already established in other films that he wasn’t afraid to take on parts that showed him in a negative light, and he’s on great form here as the pompous breadwinner of the house, oblivious to the way his brusque, offhand attitude comes to annoy his wife. His character is a walking, talking warning to spouses everywhere that one shouldn’t become blasé in a relationship. When his wife tells him she wants a divorce, he can’t believe it, yet the narrative has carefully shown all the steps where he’s gone wrong. As his marriage falls apart around him, and even at the end of the picture, he continues to believe they can work things out, which encapsulates the ignorant, pig-headed man into which he’s developed.

Despite a heroic turn from Douglas, this is Kathleen Turner’s movie. One of the great American actresses of the 1980s (and criminally Oscar nominated only once, for Peggy Sue got Married), Turner brought all her natural sexiness and bite to bear in what was quite possibly her ultimate role. She runs away with the picture as the embittered Barbara, whose children are about to leave the home she’s spent her married life making beautiful, and who doesn’t want to spend another minute of it with Oliver. As Mr Rose has started going to seed, established and complacent in his career, Barbara still looks fabulous and retains the hunger to establish herself as a caterer. She realises their marriage is over when he suffers a heart attack and she doesn’t rush to his hospital bedside. Oliver writes her a note from what he thinks might be his death-bed. Reading it to her later, the camera cuts to her face, bored and clearly no longer willing to indulge him. There are devastating, violent scenes to come, but as a statement of marital tedium, this is a priceless moment.

The War of the Roses: ***

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