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Growth for women’s equality

By Staff | Feb 24, 2009

A wispy young woman filmgoers remember as surviving the sinking of the “Titanic” has in 2008 starred in atypical roles that each define early roots of the women’s movement, whether through matrimony or silently pushing the edge of gender expectations in 1940s Nazi Germany.

“Revolutionary Road,” set in the ’50s, defines a time when the husband provided for the family and the wife generally took care of children and kept house. That period saw the seemingly endless “keeping up with the Jones” cycle, where in this time frame it meant a house in the suburbs, a new car, and 2.5 children.

As a consequence, the satisfaction of a man for his job was not discussed. Rather, it was how much you earned and whether  you were being promoted. No one questioned the boss’ decision and the manufacturer corporation was the idol to which all bowed unless they had an independent source of wealth.

Women were expected to be feminine, dress in the latest fashion (and not challenge skirt lengths, neckline plunges, or the wearing of pants no matter how climate suitable), cook dinner for their families, and stand by their man, even when he was an abuser or addict. Conservative churches taught marriages were for life, so to leave your husband placed a scarlet letter on your head.

Winslet plays a woman with performing arts aspirations living at the intersection of the movie’s title, “Revolutionary Road.” She didn’t get a ‘big break,’ so she settled for marriage, family and community theatre. Although her husband (Leonardo DiCaprio) is not content with his position, he blindly  recognizes that the job supports his family.

However, his wife still has dreams — of doing what you were put on this earth to do. She persuades him to move to Paris where they would switch roles — she would work as a secretary, while he “found himself.”

The norms of the era toss inevitable decisions — security and promotions, a new child on the way, the  moving to another country’s impact upon their two children — that amass greater role standards. 

Strong willed Winslet expects a marriage of equality. Her husband should not make a major decision without asking her input. What about her? Must she discuss intimate private details with her husband? Is she free to determine decisions concerning her body without asking her husband?

Needless to say, their marriage contains loud verbal disagreements and occasional “threats” of actions that would be shameful in the eyes of others during the ’50s.

As “Revolutionary Road” explores the intellect and firm vocalization of a woman who knows what she wants and has qualities and talents for realistically chasing the dream, by contrast, Winslet’s character, Hanna in “The Reader” must outwardly follow the norm while inwardly and secretly rebelling. Illiterate, plain, strong willed and unmarried, Hanna  clicks tickets on a tram with the precision of a correctional officer.

Yet, the narration best describes how she subtlety and flagrantly rejects the German societal expectation. “The Reader” begins with an ill school boy getting off the bus. “He was 15 riding home from school when he became severely ill. One woman helped him.”

Months later the German student brought flowers to the woman twice his age. An affair ensured. Hanna taught her young man about the sensual; he read to her from the classics of literature. Knowing their “romance” could not lead to marriage, Hanna disappeared. She took a job in another town that would mean a larger payday.

Years later, attending a war crimes trial as part of a law class, Michael sees Anna again. She and others are accused of war crimes; specifically working for the S.S. and allegedly letting 100 Jewish women burn to death inside a locked church.

Walking through her life with her brain on assembly line autopilot, Winslet’s Hanna still has more spunk that most. On the outside she conducts herself as her superiors would expect. However, her gender role challenging journey began when she held the under age teen. Their summer afternoons of sensual romps would be statutory rape under U.S. law. Still, during her affair, she exhibits two-faced emotional traits, struggling to suppress a natural urge to nurture, giving in to sexual temptations, and preserving her staunchness and emotionless role in the Hitler controlled country.

Oddly, “The Reader” offers no glimpse into the whys and wherefores of Hanna’s past, just that her apparent blonde looks enabled her to generally get her way. The story does not explore how her character becomes more hardened of heart and perpetually single.

Offering a fledgling glance into the mind of an S.S. civilian in a just following superiors in working class job, “The Reader” confronts Hitler’s so-called ‘final solution’ from the perspective of an illiterate government employee. After having established the intimacy between the young man/older woman, the film’s director has reframed from scenes depicting scenes of the Nazi murders. At the war crime trial, the perspective — and balance of justice — rests not on military men but civilians who just let the prisoners’ burn.

Having already established her callousness, Winslet’s Hanna flatly, verbally explains the sordid truth (to her detriment) that Jewish prisoners were considered by the Nazis at a level below human.

Thus, primed with S.S. washed brains Winslet’s character saw the prisoners as a matter of work. If they were let out, they would have to be rounded up; once rounded up they would have to be again selected for a train to a camp where they would be killed.

Winslet stays stoic and seemingly questions little, but unlike her fellow prisoner, this pawn vocalized what nearly every German civilian knew but did not question. Her honesty earned her a life sentence. Unlike other women, she “knew” those burning were not sub-human; instead, she viewed intercession as “more work” for the guards, rather than firmly stating, “they were Jews; they were not human,” which would have gotten her a minimum sentence like the others. 

Ironically, inside the prison, Hanna “grows” and “stretches” her capabilities, which provides even more tools for Winslet to display her talent, which as she ages, silently depicts futility. For instance, make-up ages her feet to those of an elderly woman. This is significantly shattering as viewers earlier saw her in the prime of womanhood.

How would viewers feel if the director had shown Winslet’s character participating in atrocities? Would we be less inclined to believe such a naive, somewhat nubile woman, had the hate to participate in the burning? I don’t know. But having seen Winslet in a film that required loud, argumentative emotions coupled with a movie in which you form impressions through gazes at her posture, stance, or eyes to watch her suffer earns her acting honors that have been so evasive.

Contact Tony at trutherford@graffitiwv.com