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Milk/ The Reader

Milk/ The Reader

Total Film

July 2009

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Director Gus Van Sant
Starring Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, James Franco
Cert 15
Film **** Extras **

Director Stephen Daldry
Starring Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, Jeanette Hain, David Kross
Cert 15
Film *** Extras N/A

Leading roles
Lounge plays off this year’s Best Actor and Best Actress...

When it comes to doling out its glitziest accolade, Hollywood knows what it likes: established stars showing off their ‘range’. As soon as Sean Penn turned that frown upside down to play ’70s gay politician Harvey Milk, this year’s Best Actor Oscar was in the bag. His Milk co-star Josh Brolin even made a crack about Penn’s smile being the key to his victory… But – joking aside – watching an actor who’s spent the majority of his career glowering slip so comfortably into the skin of a gay man remembered for his warmth gave Gus Van Sant’s biopic the heart it needed and made Penn a deserved second-time victor.

Range has never been an issue for Kate Winslet, nor has Academy love. The five nods she stacked up before The Reader include a blue-maned wild child (Eternal Sunshine) and a cheating housewife (Little Children). But Winslet had to follow her own advice from Extras (Holocaust film equals Oscar bait) to finally bring baldie home. The consensus, though, is that she won for the wrong film – most would have picked her scalding turn in Revolutionary Road.

Sadly, another frustrated American hausfrau didn’t cut it for Oscar voters. It’s that ‘range’ thing again… Surely dimming her star wattage to play an illiterate SS guard who gets carnal with a 15-year-old boy (David Kross) before rotting in prison in granny make-up is the more praiseworthy effort? In Stephen Daldry’s hands, it’s not. As Hanna Schmitz, Winslet is solid in the early, sensual sequences. But later, when the scope of her heinous crimes is revealed, the actress – and Daldry, straining in convoluted strokes to bear witness to a nation’s damaged psyche – tries too hard to milk our pity for Hanna, leaving a slightly sour taste.

It’s an odd criticism to level at Winslet, whose immense likeability has always been one of her strengths, allowing us to buy her characters at their most mystifying. On the other hand, Penn – and Milk – have no need to milk anything, earning every last drop of emotion as Van Sant deftly stokes the tension between the pioneering San Francisco supervisor and his conservative arch-rival (Brolin) to a tragic boiling point. And while Winslet never quite disappears into her character, Penn embraces every awkward foible. He is Harvey Milk.

No flag of pride for Milk’s extras (although at least they were ready, unlike The Reader), which comprise dull deleted scenes and three featurettes. Bizarrely, there’s not a single image of the real Harvey, making for a weirdly airbrushed package. Our advice? Skip Milk’s extras and go watch Rob Epstein’s outstanding doc The Times Of Harvey Milk instead. Like Penn and Winslet, it’s an Oscar winner too.

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