Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Kate Winslet: Little Children & Revolutionary Road

When I last wrote about Kate Winslet, in the context of her Oscar winning performance in The Reader, I managed little more than gushing - the film had rendered me speechless, leaving me with nothing else to give. Winslet's turn as Hanna Schmitz, the strangely innocent holocaust gaurd who is caught by her past, sent me in search of other films starring the virtuoso actress that had impressed me in notable films such as Finding Neverland and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but really was frozen in my mind as young Rose parting the sea on the ill-fated bows of HMS Titanic.

Some images die hard.

Little Children (2006, Todd Field) (Home) Last night I curled up in a blanket to escape the still frigid climes of Nova Scotia and immersed myself in Winslet's turn as Sarah Pierce in Little Children, a film that also left me awestruck, but that I can hopefully address with at least a modicum of critical distance.

Little Children follows the budding relationship between Sarah and Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson), two young parents who feel trapped in comfortable, even affluent, suburban lives that could be postcards for the ever-foggier American dream. Sarah is married to a drab older man and has borne him a child that she feels little connection to, while Brad is married to the super-hot (always) but bitchily controlling Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) and plays stay-at-home Dad to their son.

Both are primary caregivers: such being Sarah's part to play in her "picture perfect" life, while Brad cares for his son while not studying for the bar exam that he does not want to take in order to become a lawyer that he does not want to be.

Voice of Reason
The first hour of Little Children is punctuated by the ever-reasonable voice of the omniscient narrator, who lets us know precisely what each character is feeling or thinking in a dispassionate, almost analytical manner. We never doubt the narrator's omniscience, because the truth of his reportage is ever apparent on the screen. Indeed, we even begin to adopt his analytic distance, feeling an anthropological fascination with the relationship we are witnessing, much as Sarah opened the film by explaining her anthropological fascination with the inane lives of the desperate housewives that she rubs shoulders with before Brad's appearance.

When their first passionate embrace - inevitable but somehow unexpected - leads to animal lust, we feel tension break like a thunderhead cracking open - the analytical distance is shortened like a choke chain viciously tugged. I gasped, clutched the sofa arm more tightly and let the electricity of their union slow through me. Sweet release.

But its not that easy, as the omniscient narrator reminds us about 20 minutes later, reimposing the perspective of a biologist beginning a dissection. Sarah and Brad are still part of postcards, after all, and wives, husbands, and children - little children - circumscribe the potential of their relationship.

The Pervert
Which is where the pervert comes in. Initially a side story, but increasingly prominent as the passion and deception grows, Ronnie is a convicted pedophile who has completed his sentence and returned to the neighbourhood to live with his ever-loving and surely long-suffering mother.

Initially I had trouble pegging Ronnie's role in Little Children, and I am still not sure that I fully understand it. Sure he plays a role in Brad's rebellion against his domineering wife, and certainly he represents jeopardy to the children that can only help being Sarah and Brad closer together in a protective circle.

But what stuck with me as I pondered the film last night and this morning was Ronnie's mother, who accepts that her son is guilty of the crime of exposing himself to young children, but still stands by him in the stolid belief that his crime was the past:"but we can always choose the future." I am paraphrasing, to be sure, but this is the essence of her eternal optimism for her son's potential to get a girlfriend, build a relationship, and "be good."

We Can Always Choose the Future
And that is a key reason for Ronnie's role in the film, it seems to me. He shows us that we truly can't always choose the future. He is a pedophile, pure and simple, and his only escape is horrifying and entirely lacks satisfaction for the audience despite its poetic appropriateness. We feel sorry for him, for god's sake....

And this perhaps is also the essence of the situation Sarah and Brad find themselves in. Dissatisfied with wholly-enviable lives of comfort and limitless potential, they feel trapped in roles they are not sure that they want to play, and, like many adulterers before them, find escape and new hope in each others' arms literally - and in the dream of running away and starting over figuratively. Bat can Sarah and Brad choose their futures?

Little Children left me in awe, pure and simple. WATCH THIS FILM.

Revolutionary Road (2008, Sam Mendes) (Home) The other film that I encountered on my journey through Kate Winslet's career was Revolutionary Road, which reunites her with Leo DiCaprio in a role that is surprisingly similar to that she plays in Little Children.

April (Winslet) and Frank (DiCaprio) met and fell in love with each other and with the idea they are dramatic outliers in the cookie-cutter landscape of 1950s, suburban America. They fell in love with the idea they were somehow better than the average Joes living in little pink houses all over post-war USA, commuting to drab jobs in corporate America, and raising the next generation to play the same role ad infinitum.

Except that they live in a large, sprawling, white picket-fenced "little pink house" in the suburbs, Frank commutes every day to a drab job that he hates, and April stays home to raise the next generation of kids that we can only assume are destined to the same fate. And it makes them feel like failures who have compromised their dreams in trade for a wooden nickel. And this makes them bitter, which makes them lash out at each other, and makes them miserable.

Until they remember the dream that glowed around them when they first met: Frank had been to Paris, and in Paris, he believes, people are really alive. And this dream grows in April, who believes that moving to Paris is their ticket out of mediocrity, out of compromise, and out of misery - she believes that she and Frank can choose their future.

Which would be all well and good if the viewer really cared. If we looked at them and empathized with their "untenable" situation, wished that they could escape the confines of their "smothering" lives.

But we don't. Instead we feel that they are spoiled and selfish, like they feel that the world owes them something that it clearly doesn't. After all, like Sarah and Brad in Little Children, April and Frank made all of the decisions that led them to the comfortable if glamourless lives they now live.

Perhaps if we saw April and Frank being loving parents to the children that occupy the edges of Revolutionary Road like wooden props of convenience we could care. Perhaps if Frank were less flippantly cool and assuredly better than everyone around him. Perhaps if April ever said or did something realistic to try and improve their lives.

But no. Perhaps the one great scene in RR comes when the mentally ill son of a neighbour throws a tantrum and tells them in no uncertain terms how selfish and self-deluded they are. How they have sold out anything real they could have been in support of the illusion that they are somehow princes and princesses merely passing for paupers.

Game, Set, MATCH.
I hadn't realized until I sat down at the keyboard how similar these films are in the scenario that they present. Hell, even Titanic is about two young people feeling trapped in lives they weren't meant for and are struggling to rise above.

In Little Children this milieu plays out as a complex, compelling, physically and emotionally engaging drama. But in Revolutionary Road it ends up under the tires, making Titanic look like an insightful and intelligent accomplishment. Little Children accomplishes a modern work of art, Revolutionary Road wastes good talent.

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