Monday, February 2, 2009

In it to Winslet

Sigh... Kate Winslet is one of those actresses who seems to get better looking with age.

It took me a long time to actually like Ms. Winslet. My first exposure to her was the horrifically bad Titanic, and for several years the idea stuck in my head that she was an apple-cheeked ninny. (Same thing went for Leonardo DiCaprio.)

But after Sense and Sensibility, Little Children and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I came to the conclusion that she is a much better actress than I initially thought. (I've also come to the view that DiCaprio is also better.) Eternal Sunshine was the best of the three, but Little Children was one of the darkest films I've seen in years. (I went to see it with a friend who said when we left the theater, "I feel like slashing my wrists.") It was a movie that was not trying to make any friends. You have to admire a star who acts in a film about sympathetic sex offenders.

That being said, her latest efforts -- Revolutionary Road and The Reader -- are unworthy of her.

Not that either is bad, per se. Just safe. (Which is worse than bad in many ways.)

As someone who made a life choice to be a writer (aka, poor) I'm going to take a contrarian view on Revolutionary Road, and say that I found the message of the movie way too self-congratulatory. RR is essentially a picture about 1950s conformity. Winslet and DiCaprio play an unhappily married couple living in the burbs. Kate talks her husband into moving to Paris -- which they plan with giddy anticipation, and then their plans fall through. (Of course.)

The film makes the life that they lead out in the suburbs stifling. DiCaprio's unwillingness to take a chance moving out to Paris makes him out to be small and cowardly. He's seduced by comfort.

But I would argue that men like that -- who work boring jobs that they hate to support their families -- have a kind of quiet heroism about them. (A more sympathetic portrait of that sort of person was Gregory Peck in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.) It's easy to throw eggs at conformity from the sidelines. But it's hard to be a good parent or provider without some sort of decent job. DiCaprio's character doesn't have some sort of grand ambition for himself -- he doesn't have a great work of art burning within him -- he's just an ordinary person who's dissatisfied with his life. Is this really tragedy? I'm not so sure.

The Reader is, in many ways, a better and worse movie.

It's better in that it's a more interesting story. It's about a teenaged boy in Germany who has an affair with an older woman whom he later discovers was a concentration camp guard.

The movie has gotten some flak because it's deemed "sympathetic" to a Nazi woman. And I can sort of understand thinking that a "we're human -- all too human!" message is pretty ridiculous when discussing Nazis. However, I would argue that it's about something slightly different -- it's about falling in love with something evil.

Although Winslet is railroaded into a stiffer jail sentence than her compatriots, it doesn't really assuage her guilt. She's guilty as hell. She watched a church filled with Jews burn to the ground and refused to let them leave. Where I come from, that's called mass murder. It's not forgivable. And she richly deserves punishment. But even Nazis had loved ones. If the movie is asking, "What's it like to be a loved one?" then I think it's a question worth asking. (Her later "redemption" -- for whatever that's worth -- is not nearly as interesting.)

Winslet is, I think, better in The Reader than in Revolutionary Road. You can understand how a woman who looks as she does would be a fantasy treasure trove for a young teenaged boy. She gets down the Teutonic impatience; and she has a look of guilt and nervousness in her eyes. As well as the look of a woman who is very limited -- and knows it.

However, I couldn't help but feel that she had picked the role as Oscar bait. And Ricky Gervais only seemed to confirm my suspicion at the Golden Globes.

Well, Kate, I know you've been nominated four times and never won. I want you to win. But just not for these two. You understand, don't you?