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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
For his debut as a film director, Alan Rickman has chosen material with which he is very familiar. The Winter Guest is a play he commissioned and directed on the stage before adapting it for the screen in collaboration with playwright Sharman Macdonald. Rickman's familiarity with the material and his considerable experience of working in front of the camera seem to have prepared him well for the making of an exceptional film.
Emma Thompson plays Frances, a photographer whose husband has recently died after a long illness, leaving her to raise a teenaged son. Frances and Alex are visited by Elspeth, Frances' mother (played by Thompson's mother, Phyllida Law). Frances cannot find direction in her life and has surrounded herself with the photographic record of her husband and his illness. Elspeth, whose health is failing, cannot rely on the support of a daughter who is unable even to care for herself. Alex is caught between memories of his father and an emotionally absent mother. On the coldest day in memory, the sea around this remote Scottish village, like the lives of Frances and those she loves, has frozen as far as the eye can see.
Together, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey and production designer Robin Cameron Don, have created an environment for the story which mirrors the desolate emotional world in which the characters find themselves. The colours are muted to the point that the film sometimes seems to have been shot in black and white, with only tones of grey to give it texture. Some shots are composed with a rigid symmetry, others with a sweeping, aerial freedom. This contrast is timed to echo the themes of dependency between parent and child, the purpose of Death and grieving, and the tension between the emotion and the intellect.
Rickman uses cinematic devices like a veteran. His symbols and recurring motifs of water, fire, and even fur, are used to considerable effect throughout. So too, does he use narrative techniques. Two truant school boys, not originally connected with Frances and her mother, are drawn into their story and used as contrast. In their narcissistic search for pleasure and adventure, they depict the base side of life against Frances' cold intellectual remoteness. Nita, a young woman with romantic designs on Alex, is almost able to draw him out with her passionate attitudes and her aggressive, juvenile, almost animalistic desires. Chloe and Lily, two elderly women of the village whom we meet as they wait for a bus to take them to a funeral, demonstrate the constant presence of death and how it can be embraced and normalised. They pore over obituaries and discuss the rituals of death with a mundane, child-like preoccupation. Their closeness further develops the themes of dependency and need.
Some may find the restraint of the film difficult to endure. Characters seem ever on the edge of lashing out or breaking down. There is a contained energy at work which is only seldom evident in their actions. This restraint is deliberate. It becomes the central motif in the film's construction. The story is about the frictions which exist between what we need and what we can give, between parent and child, between passion and logic, life and death. The performances are tight and restrained because the characters, in their efforts to understand and adapt, must be also.
The Winter Guest is an excellent film. Rickman uses visual, auditory and narrative techniques like a veteran. There are tremendous performances by all; especially Law (Elspeth) , Arlene Cockburn (Nita) and Sean Biggerstaff (Tom). A wonderful capture of atmosphere and production design is enhanced by exemplary cinematography and held together by an intelligent, controlled and dramatically charged script.
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