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Shailene Woodley and Kate Winslet: The bright spots at the centre of Divergent

Kate Winslet's part in dystopian drama Divergent might just represent the ideal new character type for the English actress: ice queen.

Kate Winslet.
Kate Winslet as Jeanine in the adaptation of Veronica Roth's Divergent.

I wasn’t a huge fan of the film version of Veronica Roth’s Young Adult novel Divergent and I wasn’t meant to be—even in the most flattering light, I’m no Young Adult. But there are two very fine performances in this futuristic drama set in a dystopian version of Chicago. One is from the 22-year-old star, Shailene Woodley, who plays Tris, the young woman whose wide-ranging talents make her anathema to the system of classifying civilians according to their specialities (the physical, the intellectual, the pastoral and so on). Tris proves that you can be good at climbing up buildings or leaping from great heights, but you can also work out complicated maths problems without counting on your fingers. Science fiction it may be, but the essence of the film is that timeless adolescent conundrum: who am I?

The other bright spot in Divergent comes in the form of a brief appearance from Kate Winslet as the Sinister Representative of Authority. That’s not her character’s name—I don’t recall if her character has a name—but this is indisputably her function, along with power-dressing to kill and generally looking amazing and evil and perfecting the ability to simper and scowl at the same time. She shows that Tilda Swinton need not have the monopoly on ice-queens.

It’s strange to admit but I had forgotten all about Kate Winslet until seeing her in Divergent. Yes, I know she had a new film out only last week (Labor Day) but that was very much in the grain of tasteful, middle-class, middle-brow, book-of-the-month-club projects like The Reader and Revolutionary Road (inflammatory novel, that, but a tame movie). Divergent doesn’t take any risks either, but it does provide an opportunity for Winslet to play a pantomime villain, something she hasn’t attempted before. With a few more chances like this, she could corner the market in classy, withering villains in Hollywood cinema, much as Alan Rickman (who is directing Winslet in her next film, the period drama A Little Chaos) did in the 1980s and 1990s.

That may not in itself sound like much to aspire to, but I’m all for actors rejuvenating themselves by darting off in unexpected new directions. Winslet showed she could be cruel from the very start of her film career: she played a teenage murderer in Peter Jackson’s chilling 1994 picture Heavenly Creatures. She acts infrequently now, and chooses scrupulously, but her decisions (with the exception of her magical cameo as herself in Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s sitcom Extras) can err on the side of worthiness. Though her CV does not want for daring choices (Jude, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), it’s been a while since she felt new or unknowable on screen. That at least can be said of her brief, gleeful performance in Divergent.

Divergent is released 4 April.