A colleague confided that he feared The Winter Guest because he didn't want to watch Emma Thompson talking to her mom for two hours. This perfectly summarizes the kind of trap Alan Rickman's directorial debut could've laid for art-house patrons: Hire one respected English actor to oversee a film starring Britain's most popular stateside actress and her obscure but heavily stage-credentialed actress mother, and you might easily get a gabby sobfest unparalleled since Joan and Melissa Rivers reenacted post-suicide trauma on network TV.
But The Winter Guest eschews actorly self-indulgence for a barbed, occasionally macabre wit that retreats at just the right moments into soft, stirring anguish. The film depicts its characters dealing with mortality--whether that be continuing life without a departed partner or facing the imminent death of a parent, or even contemplating one's own inevitable somersault into the abyss--but this is not Autumn Sonata, Part Deux. The overriding tone of the movie is one of trenchant resolve, set chiefly by Thompson's mom, Phyllida Law, in a wickedly unsentimental performance full of tender impatience and caustic wisdom.
It was more than just an act of gallantry for Thompson and Rickman to grant Law top billing here. She has flirted with U.S. recognition before opposite her daughter in Ang Lee's wildly popular adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, but stayed firmly within an ensemble that supported Thompson and Kate Winslet. She takes pride of place as The Winter Guest's flinty soul, using every means in her emotional arsenal to raise her middle-aged daughter out of premature despair.
Alan Rickman's cheeky film is actually four "stories," each of which lacks resolution and apparent connection to the others. They all take place on the same Scottish coast during the coldest day of a particular winter. These meandering sagas are linked conceptually to the film's sweeping curiosity about the arc of life, encompassing childhood, young adulthood, mid-life, and the senior years. We follow the paths of Thompson grieving over her dead husband, with Law as her movie mother petitioning not always gracefully for her child's resurrection; Gary Hollywood as Thompson's son, who gets drawn into a fling with a sexy troublemaker (Arlene Cockburn); two precocious schoolkids (Douglas Murphy and Sean Biggerstaff) playing hooky with a cardboard boxful of kittens; and two even more precocious, elderly best friends (Sheila Reid and Sandra Voe) who've taken to attending funerals for their entertainment value.
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As portentous as this construction sounds on paper, The Winter Guest feels blissfully unaware of its own loaded dramatic dice, throwing out each but refusing to keep score. The surprise, and the pleasure, of the film is that Rickman and company aren't out to answer life's big questions, but rephrase them as observantly and eloquently as possible. At least one of each pair of characters is working toward some goal, with time stalemating their every move. The most blatantly comical longing is by one of the preadolescent boys, waiting with deep frustration for his testicles to drop so he can begin "wanking."
Alan Rickman, a character actor who made his cinematic debut as the villain in Die Hard, often disappears when given the role of leading man; The Winter Guest suggests that the best support he can give his fellow performers comes from behind the camera, nudging them into the kind of richly intimate moments he elicits here. He proves no slouch as a cinematic landscapist, either; his characters glide into their fates on the wings of Rickman's searching camera, turning an ice-covered Scottish town into a beautiful, reserved diorama.
And he uses the winter motif more resourcefully than Atom Egoyan does in his lavishly praised The Sweet Hereafter. As much as I admired that film, its lachrymose invocation of death feels leaden compared to Rickman's funereal winter wonderland. The Winter Guest ends with a mist-shrouded scene that's faintly sinister but far more lovely than anything in Egoyan's stiff critical smash. Rickman couldn't have summoned a better visual coda than two kids playing on an icy lake full of cracks; up to this point, all his characters have flirted with falling through and drowning.
The Winter Guest.
Directed by Alan Rickman. Written by Sharman Macdonald and Rickman. Starring Phyllida Law, Emma Thompson, Gary Hollywood, Arlene Cockburn, and Sheila Reid. Opens Friday.