Thursday, February 4, 2016

2008: Kate Winslet for The Reader

Kate Winslet  plays Hanna Schmitz, a mysterious, attractive woman who has a passionate affair with a teenager but breaks it off suddenly by disappearing. Years later, when he is a law student attending the trial of several Auschwitz guards, he is surprised to see her as one of the defendants.

This is such a weird movie and performance, and I have mixed feelings about both. My main thought about the performance is it was good, but I wanted a lot more. We only really get to see her character from the boy's perspective, and he's super obnoxious and immature, even when he grows up, so that's annoying. I want more of her story, and I want to see her doing more than desperately trying to cover up her big secret (spoiler alert: she can't read) and getting naked. Seriously, I'm pretty sure she has literally the same amount of screen time without clothes on as with clothes on, at least in the first half of the movie. Her acting is fine in the beginning, but the nudity is kind of distracting.

For me, both the performance and the movie pick up steam at the trial. That's when we really get a sense of who Hanna Schmitz is, how her mind works, and what precisely makes her tick. There are glimpses earlier on, but the film is so focused on Michael that it's hard to see. Even during the trial, we see more of Michael's reactions to what's going on than hers, but we get a better idea of what's in her head than we did before. In a way, she's more naked in that court room than she was during the sex scenes. Earlier in the film, we can almost never tell what she thinks or feels, except for a few moments when she looks slightly uncomfortable because someone is assuming she can read. But at the trial her face is much more expressive, and we can see how she feels. It's an odd time for this to happen. Before we know that she's a Nazi, she seems distant and almost inhuman, but then at the same time that we learn that she handpicked young girls to be sent to their deaths, she starts to seem more like a living, feeling human being. We even feel sorry for her when she's forced to either falsely claim that she was in charge or reveal that she can't read or write. It's clear that this was a very intentional transition to make the audience uncomfortable, and Winslet executes it beautifully.

Beyond that, I also like the way she lights up when she's being read to, and how eager she is when she finally has an opportunity to learn to read. But I feel like more could have been done with that. The story seems rather unfocused: is it a coming-of-age story? Is it pornography? Is it about the importance of literacy? Is it about the Holocaust? I'm confused. Overall, Kate Winslet does a good job of portraying this character, but I would have preferred to see more acting and less of her. Is that mean? It's nothing against Winslet; I'm just not a fan of gratuitous nudity.

To date, Kate Winslet has received seven Oscar nominations: four for leading roles and three for supporting roles. She was nominated first for her supporting role in 1995's Sense and Sensibility, and then for her leading role in 1997's Best Picture Winner, Titanic. She was nominated for one more supporting role, in 2001's Iris, which was followed by three more leading role nominations: 2004's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 2006's Little Children, and finally, this movie. So it seems like her win has to be at least partly in recognition of past work. After winning, she wasn't nominated again until now, when she's up for Best Supporting Actress for 2015's Steve Jobs. She already won the Golden Globe, so it seems promising, but we'll have to wait a few more weeks to find out.

Coming up next: Sandra Bullock

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