My current Top 5

My current Top 5

4/22/2010

Best Actress 2008: Kate Winslet in "The Reader"

After five unsuccessful nominations, Kate Winslet finally took home the Best Actress Oscar for her performance as Hannah Schmitz – an uneducated woman with a secret past in post-war Germany .

The Reader is a very average movie that suffers from the fact that it takes itself far too seriously because it deals with the topic of the Holocaust. Unfortunately, as a movie, The Reader has nothing new to say or to show and seems only to exist to collect awards for dealing with such a serious subject.

But fortunately Kate Winslet was able to bring her complex character wonderfully to live and survive all the mediocrity around her with a memorable and layered performance. Even though she received several awards as Best Supporting Actress, Kate Winslet’s Hannah is clearly the central character of the film even if her screentime is limited compared to other nominees. Hanna always remains a kind of mysterious presence in this movie. Like Michael, the young boy who starts an affair with her, the viewer never really gets to know her. But despite the distance the character keeps to her surroundings, she is still an overpowering presence.

Hannah is a woman who carries two secrets with her. One is her illiteracy and the other one her past as a prison guard in a concentration camp. While she shows her first secret with small looks and gestures to the viewer very soon, her second secret is not revealed until later when she is brought to trial for her crimes. The difficult task for Kate Winslet is to make it believable that Hannah’s illiteracy is actually troubling her much more than her past. She can’t see any faults in her action herself since she only did what she thought was right – but her illiteracy, her weakness, is the one thing in her life that she wants to be kept unknown and that is shaming her more than anything else. It is thanks to Kate Winslet’s talent as an actress that Hannah’s actions and thoughts always appear believable, as hard as they may be to understand.

Kate Winslet’s accent is rather distracting at the beginning, but her powerful and strong line deliveries more than make up for that. She is perfectly able to show that Hannah’s character is a giant contrariness – she seems strong and knowing, but at the same time she appears insecure and untaught. She generally puts on a rather aggressive attitude which contributes to the distance she has to everyone around her. It is never revealed if she has any friends or social contacts – but from her way of behaving it seems that her affair with Michael is not her first kind of this encounter.

Hannah is also a woman who seems unable of any self-criticism and reflection about her own behaviour – she doesn’t seem to find any moral problems in her affair with Michael but she pretends to be appalled when he reads “Lady Chatterly’s lover” to her (even though she lets him continue with it). Kate’s Hannah also has a great chemistry with Michael – not loving, rather in a possessive, a destructive way, but still fascinating. During her fight scenes, Kate Winslet lets Hanna become a force of nature – primitive, strong, unforgiving. She is not willing to lose control over her life for even just one second because she needs this control to keep her secret.

Kate Winslet successfully turns Hannah into a three-dimensional and mysterious woman at the same time and gives a fascinating performance as this unmoral woman. But her greatest moments come in the second half of the movie. Her scenes in the court room, all her fear, her beliefs, her insecurity are portrayed perfectly. The scenes when Hanna is describing her past in Nazi Germany, with a kind of innocence because she believes that she did all the right things, are acted wonderfully. In these scenes, she has to become a symbol for what are considered to be German values – correctness, thoroughness and dutifulness. It is revealed that Hannah used to have a ‘normal’ job until she was to be promoted and decided to become a prison guard in a concentration camp instead because she was afraid that her illiteracy would be discovered at her old job. It is shown how the atmosphere of hate and terror in Nazi Germany enabled a woman like Hannah, uneducated but with a dominant and domineering personality, to come into a position where she could decide over life and death. She fought her feelings of inferiority with a forced and obsessed attitude of superiority and for her, showing her weaknesses is worse than being a prison guard in a concentration camp or going to prison. As this is the fact, Hannah is not a symbol for Nazi Germany and all its criminals – instead, The Reader only tells the story about one women and how her naiveté mixed with a tendency for violence and domination and her own weaknesses made her become the women who is seen on trial.

The fact that Hannah feels so ashamed about her illiteracy that she would become a prison guard and later take the single blame for her crimes to cover up her ignorance is very stretched but Kate’s expressive face and acting talent make it believable. The look on her face when she sees the pen lying next to her is a wonderful moment and Kate is able to make it a true moment when Hannah would rather go to prison than reveal the truth about herself.

In the part of Hannah, Kate Winslet never tries to ask for forgiveness and neither does the movie try to show her in a positive light. Hannah is a dangerous woman with a destructive personality who always acted on her own will and did what she thought would be the best for her. But at the same time, Kate shows that Hannah’s low level of education maybe prevented her from seeing a more overall truth than just her own. The scene when she is in prison and is told that she has a visitor is especially moving – the audience sees her happy, excited, waiting until she is told that no one is coming.

Only in the end, Kate Winslet’s performance as an old woman fails to reach the same level of excellence as before. Her awful make-up that makes her look like something out of Madame Tussaud’s instead of a real human being is certainly to blame, but Kate also never really turns into this old woman – rather she plays the young Hannah with make-up. It’s a difficult task to portray such advanced age in a character and Kate is not fully able to succeed.

Still, it’s a remarkable and fascinating performance of a very complex character. For this, Kate Winslet gets

9 comments:

Sage Slowdive said...

I love the beginning of her performance...it's so domineering and strangely erotic.

It's those courtroom scenes that don't do it for me...completely predictable.

Louis Morgan said...

There is strength to her performance at the beginning but the later parts of it have some big problems.

joe burns said...

Loved the film and performance! Great writeup!

joe burns said...

And could you do Anne's profile next?

Fritz said...

@Joe: Thanks! And yes, I can do that! No prob!

Sage Slowdive said...

I hope me and Fritz at least sort of agree on Anne Hathaway...

joe burns said...

I hope you're with me on Anne, Fritz!

Zephyr said...

Love this film and Kate's performance. So pleased that she won!

Robert said...

I'm a HUGE Kate Winslet fan, and this isn't my favorite performance of hers but it definitely elevates the movie. Her performance is really a devestating piece of work, if not a bit inconsistent.