Saturday, March 14, 2009

Long Live the Queen(s)

The following column is repronted from the March edition of Providence Monthly.

Eyes Wide Open
By Scott Duhamel

By the time this piece reaches publication we effete, couch-dwelling, list-checking, blog-reading, celluloid-sniffing Oscar aesthetes will have already had our ever glorious, and typically never ending, night of award-giving; with Oscars going to the deserved, the unknown, and the unpredictable. The night’s biggest, hard-scratching, scrape-‘em-up scuffle may be between two of the more elite nominees, the reigning Queen of the Big Screen, the indomitable Wise Meryl Streep (with 14 past nominations and 2 wins to her credit), and the hard charging Sharp Kate Winslet (5 prior noms, no wins), the soon-or-later-to-be Queen.
Oscar voters are notoriously sentimental (and their collective age skewers well past the middle-aged markers) and they can’t help but adore knock-‘em-outta-the-park Wise Meryl, she being a baby boomer with the accompanying sturdy work ethic, the no nonsense attitude and fairly unblemished track record at the work place and the box office. By the same token Sharp Kate exhibits much of the same solidity, does exemplarily duty on the promotional circuit, lends unexpected class her frequent on screen clothes-doffing, and she will forever be able to shake out the box office boffo pixie dust of Titanic out of her well-coiffed tresses. Don’t ever kid yourself, Oscar wins are mostly all about the culmination of a number of Hollywoodized factors, with the actual film performance cited ofttimes relegated to a kinda-sorta/coulda-shoulda secondary factor.
Sharp Kate has grabbed up nominations for two supporting roles (1995’s Sense and Sensibility, 2001’s Iris), two other starring roles (2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 2006’s Little Children), and of course the aforementioned cultural lighting bolt The Titanic (1997). This year (just like Wise Meryl) she was graced with two starring roles, in husband Sam Mendes’s finely-tuned adaptation of Richard Yates’s seminal 1961 novel, Revolutionary Road, and in the role she was actually nominated for, director Stephen Daldry and playwright David Hare’s, (prior collaborators on 2002’s heavily Oscar nominated The Hours) filmic take on Bernhard Schlink’s controversial more recent German novel The Reader. Both performances manage to be both acutely cerebral and unnervingly emotional (another page from the Wise Meryl book), although her turn in The Reader is decidedly showier, more overtly sexual, thus earning it’s Oscar markings.
Daldry and Hare’s film is a post-Holocaust tale that utilizes a central May-December romance (between Winslet’s Hanna and young David Kross’s Michael) to churn up questions of guilt and moral complexities. It’s rather deliberately paced, despites its interruptions of sexual ardor, and it regretfully contains itself with an overall feel of old school British propriety that belies the fiercely Germanic sturm and drag the film is meant to whip up.
When the middle-aged Michael (played by Ralph Fiennes) makes his first appearance we are supposed to have come to the realization that his first love Hanna has somehow transferred her complicity to him as a second-generation German, and that the weighty battle between what’s legal, what’s moral, and what’s right has been turn transferred onto our shoulders. But the movie is too obvious and, in actuality, too staid to make any of it profound. Despite that, Sharp Kate ‘s razor-edged portrayal in The Reader remains highly memorable and precisely etched, the kind of performance that stays in the mind’s eye, eventually looming larger then the movie’s itself dim memory.
I personally found Revolutionary Road a much better offering, and within it, a more scintillatingly calibrated overall performance from Sharp Kate. It’s a tough film, a heady downer about dreams deferred and paradise lost, another chance for director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) to pick at the existential scabs of American suburbia. The movie, which strives hard to convey its literary background (Yates novel has been at the center of many failed big screen dream projects before it’s current incarnation), could have defiantly used a few touches of the deadpan irony that served Mendes and his lead Kevin Spacey in the earlier foray into the dark heart of the American pipe dream.
Sharp Kate and her Titanic mate Leonardo DiCaprio are visually perfect embodiments of the picture perfect American on-the-rise couple. They convincingly display their heightened awareness--both are convinced that they aren’t simply ordinary citizens—by allowing their inner jaggedness to slowly protrude their glamorous outer shells. It’s scrupulous acting, virtually jettisoning any overt ties to audience empathy, and Mendes shoots the couple’s slow bit-by-bit descent with an impeccable eye, although the film fosters a coldness that even it’s two stars (and the scene-stealing Oscar nominated Michael Shannon) can’t quite melt down--- Mendes theatrical style seems to be underlining the fact that is, ahem, high literature, a framing device that detracts from the movie’s internalized central fissures.
Mendes theatrical background does allow for him to capture two highly compelling performances in Revolutionary Road, from DiCipario, and his own wife, Winslet. Enshrouding them in tight close-ups, pressing in on their constricted gazes, each and every actorly nuance seems to count. The emotional peeling away the actors let their characters execute is, finally, cathartic, and Sharp Kate is devastatingly compelling, inching ever closer to her inevitable cinematic Queenhood.

No comments: