British actress has paved an impressive 'Road'

There’s a telling moment in “Little Children” when Kate Winslet’s character Sarah Pierce, trapped in a loveless marriage and enmeshed in a messy affair, relates to Madame Bovary during a book club meeting with other stay-at-home moms.

“She can either choose a life of misery or struggle against it,” says Sarah. “She chooses to struggle. She fails in the end, but there’s something beautiful and even heroic in the struggle.”

Winslet’s affinity for struggling, questing characters who refuse to play by society’s rules began with her first feature, “Heavenly Creatures,” in which she played a murderous fantasist, and continues with her latest, the recently wrapped “Revolutionary Road,” in which her frustrated suburban housewife suffers from an ennui so acute that quixotic escape is the only option.

“There are so many emotions to play with when you’re playing someone who’s difficult and complex and emotionally strung out and confused,” says Winslet, who is being honored as Artist of the Year at tonight’s Britannia Awards. “I’m drawn to challenge, really. I look up a mountain and I don’t think, ‘God, that’s a nice view.’ I think, ‘I want to go up it, and I want to see it from the other side.’ And as an actress, I guess I’m probably the same way.”

Much has been made of Winslet’s auspicious beginnings in an industry that considers winning an Oscar the gold standard, and her four nominations before the age of 30 (her fifth, shortly after that birthday, was for “Little Children”) represent an Academy benchmark. More impressive, though, are her choices.

She has worked with some of the most respected — and challenging — filmmakers in the business, including Ang Lee, Michael Winterbottom, Jane Campion, Michel Gondry, Todd Field and, lately, her husband, Sam Mendes.

While many others in her position have been seduced by the fame and riches that come from projects designed to appeal to the widest possible audience, Winslet has chosen the less obvious route. Her work on “Titanic” might have represented a positive career move, but it also gave her pause.

“I definitely felt strongly that I had to gather myself and remember who I was and that it was more important to be myself than a film star,” she says.

Few would have faulted Winslet for following that box office behemoth with another grand studio production, but instead she went small and intimate, starring in a heartbreaker of a film, Gillies McKinnon’s “Hideous Kinky.”

“I think about some of the parts that I have played, and I realize that their emotional frame of mind has often mirrored my frame of mind at that time,” says Winslet. “You look at Julia in ‘Hideous Kinky’: She was a woman on some strange voyage of self-discovery, and she really didn’t know where it was going to take her but she had the courage to go there. By going to Marrakesh, what she was doing was basically trying to disappear a little bit, and escape her own life. … I know so much more now about who I was and who I am now.”

A seemingly placid surface often conceals the headstrong willfulness of Winslet’s characters. The first image we see of her Marianne Dashwood in “Sense and Sensibility” is at the piano, her hair a cascade of golden curls and her face a reflection of Fragonard’s dewy-skinned virgins. But she’s far from docile.

“To love is to burn, to be on fire, like Juliet or Guinevere or Eloise,” she tells her more timid sister Elinor. For Marianne, nothing could be more glorious than to die for love.

In a recent interview with Variety, Ang Lee described Winslet’s contribution to the film as “all fire and passion,” adding that “sometimes you had to restrain her a little bit.

“She was 19 when we did that movie,” Lee said. “She’s a great talent, and keeps getting better and better.”

Though many of Winslet’s heroines display an almost saintly integrity, she has displayed a unique variation on the femme fatale. In “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” her Clementine is sexy, impulsive, even dangerous. And the New York Times’ Stephen Holden described her scarlet-haired Lola in “Romance & Cigarettes” as “a trash-talking lingerie clerk whose hilariously explicit speed raps catapult her character into the hall of fame of cheap British tarts.” These characters are both toxic and intoxicating.

“I’m still learning to fly by the seat of my pants a bit more,” says Winslet of her tendency to overprepare. “A real turning point for me was when I did ‘Eternal Sunshine,’ because I knew that if I overplanned that character it could have really altered who I wanted her to be. … And it’s a scary position to put yourself in as an actor, because you have to allow the mysteries of a character to unfold as each shooting day goes by.”

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