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Kate Winslet: The Antidote for Contagion -- and Now She's Won an Emmy!

Posted: 09/19/2011 9:00 am

The thriller Contagion certainly has its moments, but ultimately adds up to considerably less than the sum of its parts.

You go in expecting a lot, with Steven Soderbergh directing, an "A"-list cast, and the promise of witnessing a global cataclysm along the lines of 28 Days Later, only the zombies are us, with really red runny noses, watery eyes and blinding headaches.

The movie (which I screened in "X-Dimension," throwing down some extra dollars for the privilege) has the unfortunate quality of aiming for something really big and exciting, and throwing in the kitchen sink to get it, but still... just missing.

It does not help matters that Contagion does build some expectancy and suspense, only to break the cardinal rule of movie-making by fizzling in the final act.

Also, the film does not give its stars very much to do beyond look really, really ill (always nice to see Gwyneth Paltrow foaming at the mouth though) or really, really serious (Marion Cotillard, who, in true Hollywood fashion, looks way too gorgeous and stylish to play a World Health Organization scientist).

In fact, I can pinpoint the only moments this overblown picture really works, and that's whenever Kate Winslet is on-screen (she plays an all-too-dedicated doctor from the Centers for Disease Control). Unfortunately, she's not on screen enough, and she exits ways too soon. And when she does, the movie starts to sink.

When you see a star among stars outshine everyone around her, well -- let's just say it's a potent reminder of one prodigious talent.

It was a talent spotted early. With both her parents and grandparents prominent in the English theatre, Kate was a natural from the get-go. She was acting professionally by age 11, starred in her first film at 17, was first Oscar-nominated at 20, then again just two years later for a movie that made her an international sensation.

That feature, of course, was James Cameron's Titanic (1997), a record-breaking movie that's enchanted as many people as there are McDonald's franchises. (I was never a fan personally; even now I think it reflects all that started going wrong with Hollywood roughly three decades ago, with its one-dimensional characters, dumbed-down script (filled with "'90s speak"), and lopsided over-reliance on special effects.

After Oscar night in 1998, when this young actress, on top of the world, had to be asking herself what she should do for an encore, Kate came up with the right answer. To her everlasting credit, she chose to steer away from vacuous Hollywood blockbusters like Titanic, and instead focus on smaller, smarter pictures that would both showcase and stretch her considerable acting chops. She chose quality over the big money. And we, her public, have benefited from that decision.

Now, almost fifteen years after Titanic, with six Oscar nods and one win to her credit, Kate Winslet is an actress at the peak of her powers -- no longer a precocious ingénue, but a woman who's lived -- and a professional who's conscientiously developed her craft. As a result, she's as well equipped as any actress I can think of to bring off complex portrayals requiring nuance and intensity. (And that's saying something!)

Here's hoping she continues from strength to strength as she builds on what is already a phenomenal career. Her late-breaking Emmy for the miniseries Mildred Pierce certainly augurs well for the future. Go Kate!

My own favorite Kate Winslet films follow:

Heavenly Creatures
(1994)- Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) is a morbid, overweight New Zealand teen who feels alienated from her family and classmates, but discovers a bosom buddy in pretty Juliet (Winslet), a wealthy English transplant who shares her unusual taste in music and the arts. Together, they create a fantasy world that they retreat into with increasingly obsessive zeal. When their parents attempt to force them apart, the girls hatch a dark, violent plan of escape. An unsettling drama based on a real-life crime, Creatures is the magnificent brainchild of then-horror movie director Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings), who brings considerable sensitivity to this tragic story of love and murder. Winslet and Lynskey have an intense, wholly credible rapport, playing highly intelligent girls whose intimacy takes them further and further from reality. Beautifully photographed, splendidly acted, and imaginatively directed, "Creatures" burrows under your skin in a lasting way.

Sense and Sensibility
(1996)- An enchanting portrayal of two sisters' circuitous routes to love, this superior adaptation of Jane Austen's 1811 novel concerns the fate of pragmatic Elinor (Emma Thompson) and brassy Marianne (Winslet), left penniless and disinherited when their father dies. Elinor secretly falls for a well-mannered bachelor, Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant) -- who's previously engaged, as it were- while Marianne pursues womanizer John Willoughby (Greg Wise). The outcome is anything but predictable. Ang Lee's first English-language film, Sense is a vivid period drama, intelligent and involving, and benefiting from Austen's skewering of English social mores, gossip and materialism. Young Winslet is striking in a fiery, star-making turn, more than holding her own beside the gifted, appealing Thompson (who also wrote the screenplay -- and got the Oscar for it).

Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind
(2003)- Shy guy Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) meets free-spirited Clementine Kruscynski (Winslet) and a tentative romance begins. Soon enough, the impulsive Clementine has second thoughts, and learns of a medical technique whereby someone's memory of another person can be permanently erased. When she undergoes the procedure to rid herself of Joel, her heartbroken suitor decides to do the same. Yet once the process is underway, Joel regrets his decision, and feverishly works to rescue his and Clementine's relationship from oblivion. From director Michel Gondry and the zany brain of writer Charlie Kaufman comes a wildly imaginative, thought-provoking fable about the vagaries of love. Gondry and Kaufman's loopy romance really clicks, as we're dazzled by the visual fantasy involved in Joel's sudden decision to retain a subconscious remnant of Clementine. Performances are uniformly strong (including Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst, and Tom Wilkinson), with a surprisingly restrained Carrey and suitably kooky Winslet the real standouts. An exhilarating, moving film about the ridiculous lengths people go to in order to forget the past -- and also reclaim it.

Finding Neverland
(2004)- Married Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) meets a widow, Sylvia Davies (Winslet), with four young boys he becomes very attached to, and is inspired to write Peter Pan, an ode to everlasting youth that would become a children's classic. But Barrie's efforts to produce the play at the Duke of York's theater in London are fraught with difficulty, even as his love for the Davies clan continues to grow. Man-child Depp is perfectly cast in this endearing biopic about Barrie's relationship with the family who inspired his greatest and most beloved work, and comely co-star Kate fits the bill just as nicely. Depp has always taken eccentric roles, but here he plays the real-life writer with authentic human warmth. Director Marc Forster allows us to see the world as Barrie does, depicting not just his emotional pangs (with grief and the passing of loved ones a central preoccupation), but also the flights of fancy soaring in his imagination. The effect is charming. See this one with the kids, or just for your own enchantment.

Little Children (2006)- After meeting at a local park, stay-at-home mom Sarah (Winslet) and handsome former jock Brad (Patrick Wilson), a failed lawyer with a young son, are drawn into an exhilarating, but potentially destructive, extramarital affair. Meanwhile, neighborhood busybodies are on edge about Ronnie (Jackie Earl Haley), a creepy sex offender who's moved in with his mother. Based on the acclaimed novel by Tom Perrotta, Todd Field's unsettling, often irreverent portrait of suburban malaise features a cathartic performance by Winslet, whose singular talents are on high-beam display. Sarah is unfulfilled by life as a stroller pusher; Brad has failed the bar twice and seems unfit for a career in law; both need escape from isolating routine and distant spouses, and find it in each other. Director Field takes his time developing the emotional tension, pacing us gradually toward a jarring conclusion. Former child actor Haley, in a superb turn, gives the film extra appeal as a scary, darkly funny, and vulnerable pervert.

The Reader
(2008)- In 1950s Berlin, a torrid affair between tram-fare collector Hanna Schmidt (Winslet) and strapping 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross) is accented by the older woman's request that he read her classics after their lovemaking. Eight years later, long after Hanna has mysteriously vanished from her flat, Michael, now a law student, is shocked to discover she's a defendant at a Nazi war-crimes trial. Based on Bernhard Schlink's widely admired novel and penned by screenwriter David Hare, Stephen Daldry's Reader deals with a young man's coming of age in the arms of a former concentration-camp guard. Intelligent, absorbing, and sensitively realized, the film is distinguished by Winslet's haunting performance as a cold, mysterious, and existentially decimated woman. Kross, a young German actor, holds his own as Michael (played in middle age by Ralph Fiennes), who is privy to knowledge that could help Hanna in her defense. Reader dramatizes a second generation's coming to terms with Holocaust guilt, and the hard lessons learned on the road to truth.

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