The film centers on four pairs - Frances is a recent widow who wants to get away from Scotland to Australia with her teenage son Alex to escape her memories, arrival of her old mother Elspeth makes her reconsider her decision. Alex approaches his first sexual experience with neighbour girl Nita. Chloe and Lily are two old women who like to attend strangers' funerals and Tom with Sam are two schoolboys who skip school to play on the beach and talk. Written by
When you break it down, life comes in stages; not just stages of development, but stages that can last for a moment, an hour, a day-- or indefinitely. And they come unbidden and unannounced, like an uninvited guest that drops by and burrows into your very soul to ferret out the deepest hopes, dreams, needs and desires which-- consciously or subconsciously-- are a part of everyone who draws a breath upon the planet. In spring, that guest may bring the joy of rebirth and life; in winter, it may bring a reflection of need and confusion, a feeling of loneliness and loss, the desperation of uncertainty or even despair, all born in that seemingly endless moment of searching and seeking out that elusive and intangible something that lies ahead, just out of reach. The winter guest you can neither refuse nor turn away that is desolation of spirit; a visitor to whom we are introduced in `The Winter Guest,' directed by Alan Rickman.
It's an especially cold February in a small village on the coast of Scotland; even the ocean is frozen for as far as the eye can see. And in the harsh wind that blows in from that frozen sea, we find Frances (Emma Thompson), a woman who has lost her husband, and visited by the winter of indecision is held fast in her confusion, unable to move on with her life. There to help her find the warmth of spring is Elspeth (Phyllida Law), her mother, who needs Frances as much as Frances needs her, though neither can find a way to break through the chill that has engulfed their souls. Then there is Alex (Gary Hollywood), Frances's son, still in school, but on the brink of maturity awaiting on the other side of his own winter, a taste of which he samples in the form of Nita (Arlene Cockburn), a local girl who takes a fancy to him.
Before it's through, the winter guest will visit others, as well; those in every stage of life. At one end of the spectrum are Lily and Chloe (Sheila Reid and Sandra Voe), elderly friends who seem to stave off the inevitable by attending funerals. At the other end are Sam and Tom (Douglas Murphy and Sean Biggerstaff), boys on the cusp of adolescence, who during their visit will learn that being of a like age does not put them at the same stage of life. And as the story unfolds, in each relationship a different stage of life is revealed and examined, and we see the effects of this winter guest on each.
Written by Rickman and Sharman Macdonald (adapted from Macdonald's play), this film is a study in contrasts, a pensive portraiture of life; sparse and reflective, Rickman captures in it the human condition at it's most fragile, and therein finds beauty. He uses the original music (written and performed by Michael Kamen) sparingly, opting instead for the sound of the wind, the cry of the gulls overhead or just a backdrop of silence to underscore the dialogue and the drama of the story, all to great effectiveness. By so doing, he allows the drama to speak for itself, to play out thoughtfully and in such a way that the audience is drawn in and included, very reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman's style, though perhaps a bit more wistful at times. And Rickman allows so many wonderfully telling moments in this film: The young boy, Tom, looking out at the vast frozen ocean that seemingly extends on and on forever, as if he is looking out upon his own life, which even now is extending on ahead of him, forever; or Frances, looking out upon that same ocean, a frozen sea reaching out into the unknown, even as her own life is moving on toward an unknown destination; Sam, the same age as Tom, yet younger, watching from the shore, not yet ready and therefore unable to follow as Tom ventures out into the mists that cover the frozen waters. And there's more: Alex and Nita embracing their passion; Chloe, falling and grabbing hold of a railing for support, then finally reaching out to Lily; Elspeth and Tom, sitting together on a rock and sharing a moment at the shore; Frances taking Elspeth by the arm and helping her. All moments that are profound in their simplicity, and all wonderfully presented by Rickman, with not only the eye, but the heart, of a true artist.
Phyllida Law gives an especially engaging performance as Elspeth, as does Voe as Chloe; and Biggerstaff and Murphy are a delight to watch as Tom and Sam. But the lovely Emma Thompson steals the show as Frances, with a superb, introspective and reserved performance that is entirely captivating. She successfully conveys that deepest yearning that so readily identifies the winter into which Frances has entered in her soul, and her scenes with Law (her real life mother) are a subtle expression of reality, and a joy to behold. But again, it's the prolonged moments of silence--created and staged so well by Rickman-- that are beguiling, and say so much about who Frances really is. it's such a treat to find a film in which the director is wise enough and so willing to allow enough time for his performer to do what she does best-- as Rickman did with Thompson here-- the positive impact of which is certainly evident in the depth of Thompson's portrayal of Frances.
The supporting cast includes Tom Watson (Minister) and Alan Rickman (Man in the Street). Rickman found beauty in the bleak, frozen landscape of that small, Scottish village, then translated it so well into a representation of those troubling and disorienting transitional periods that can visit us at any given stage of our lives. And, combined with his artistic eye and insight into human nature, it makes `The Winter Guest' a film to be embraced and cherished. It's an experience you'll long remember. 9/10.
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