“Everybody wants . I want,” are the words spoken by real-life mother Phyllida Law (Emma) to her daughter in The Winter Guest (Fine Line), a devastatingly honest and powerful new film.
Alan Rickman, best known for his classic role as the villain in the original Die Hard, makes his directorial debut working from an adaptation of the play by Sharman Macdonald. He proves his talents can be equally impressive working behind the camera.
Law plays Elspeth, the aging mother of Frances (Emma Thompson, Sense and Sensibility). The story begins on a bitterly cold morning in a north Scotland coastal town. It is so cold the entire ocean has frozen. Elspeth arrives at her daughter’s home, determined to evoke a response from Frances, who cannot recover from the loss of her husband.
Frances was a talented photographer, but now all that remains of her talents are pictures of her dead husband scattered about the frigid home. In a beautiful subtext to the film, Frances has cut her hair despite her mother’s objections. Her hair later will come back as a symbol of her grief and a statement of hope.
The film uses eight characters in four seemingly separate stories to tell its tale. As Elspeth and Frances decide to go for a walk by the sea, Frances’ teenage son, played by Gary Hollywood, meets a girl played by Arlene Cockburn. After a series of mishaps, they return to his house and begin to explore each other.
It is hard to determine what drives this film more. The performances are outstanding – led by Thompson who gives a riveting portrayal of a woman unable to cope with the hand she’s dealt. Her pace has slowed down, happiness and excitement have disappeared.
Law is equally brilliant as her mother, who attempts to rattle and expose her daughter, but truly loves her. As they walk on the shore, she turns to Francis and asks, “Don’t you think I would have taken his place?”
Unmoved, Francis replies, “You are safe enough offering . But it doesn’t work that way, does it?”
The supporting actors also should be recognized, especially young Hollywood as a son without a father – and left with a mother who cannot forget. Alone in the house with a beautiful girl, he is unsure how to react. They begin to make out, but even as her shirt comes off, he stops and looks at the picture of his father. He too cannot forget.
The rich scenery of the frozen Scottish seaside is visually stunning. It adds mystery to the story. The piano-laced score by Michael Kamen, who wrote the scores for all three Die Hard films, helps to illuminate the frustrations and emotions of the characters.
Rickman’s simple and unobtrusive direction is the perfect complement to the screenplay. The film exemplifies a successful transition from stage to screen. Characters interact with each other in a genuine, heartfelt manner. Thoughts and feelings are illuminated by a single stare.
The subtle genius of The Winter Guest is the way it structures the four stories on top of each other, leading to haunting meeting point. Each of the characters is passionate, and has been discouraged with what life has brought them.
By coming to terms with their fears, they begin to heal.
Rickman has written and directed a daring film that weaves its portraits like a dying artist in the night. As one of the older women leans over the railing to the ocean, not knowing if she can hold on any longer, she cries out, “I’ve lost the world!” The Winter Guest is all about finding the world. And finding who you are in it.
The Winter Guest is now playing.4 hatchets