Critics commonly cite with approval actors who can “disappear” into their characters, but that’s rarely, in the best sense, held true of Kate Winslet. The British actress’ instinctive sensuality drives men crazy, but if her frank carnality is unapologetically contemporary, her body — a violin rather than a twig — has the old-fashioned voluptuousness of an early screen siren. Women love her, too, perhaps because no matter the caliber of the movie, her trademark has been an intelligent, subtly ball-busting stare into the camera or at her leading man, which insists she’s a woman who won’t be denied.
At 33, Winslet is the youngest actress ever to have racked up five Academy Award nominations, along with a raft of other awards. But she’s also raised the bar of some pretty terrible movies (Quills and Holy Smoke come to mind), one blockbuster (Titanic) in which acting was largely beside the point, and a few forgettable trifles that threatened to waste her talents (Finding Neverland, Hideous Kinky). Her best work to date has been in her debut film, Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, as the quietly intense adolescent psycho who talks her best friend into murdering her kindly mother; and as the free spirit who rekindles her love for Jim Carrey after their memories of each other have been erased in Michel Gondry’s brilliant Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. A certain truculence served her well as the young novelist Iris Murdoch in Richard Eyre’s Iris, as it does in two 2008 films that already have more Oscar buzz circulating around them than either deserves, perhaps because she shows off that curvaceous bod naked in both.
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Winslet’s smoldering discontent opposite her friend Leonardo DiCaprio as a discontented ’50s wife brings potent energy to Revolutionary Road, directed by her husband, Sam Mendes. In Stephen Daldry’s The Reader, Winslet wrestles into submission and brings to life an incoherent character, a former concentration camp guard whom we are asked to pity because she’s illiterate. With that long, obdurate look, Winslet brings out a less palatable but more plausible edge to this woman — her refusal to apologize. Rumor has it Winslet’s next role will be a circus tiger tamer — which seems about right.