The Winter Guest

Nashville Scene

DIRECTED BY: Alan Rickman

REVIEWED: 03-02-98

The Winter Guest is the kind of monochromatic exercise in navel-gazing that used to be described as "Bergman-esque"--a catch-all phrase that generally stood for all the things mainstream audiences hated about art movies. An earnest, austere, painfully slow comedy-drama that offers modest rewards to viewers with superhuman patience, The Winter Guest unfolds during a few icy hours in a Scottish seaside village, following the rounds of a lonely widow (Emma Thompson) and her mother (Phyllida Law), who has come to worry her daughter out of her self-absorbed funk.

The script, adapted from Sharman Macdonald's play by the playwright and by actor Alan Rickman (who makes his directorial debut), intercuts the women's walk along the frozen sea with subplots that echo the gentle whimsy of Bill Forsyth's early comedies. A pair of village ladies struggle to attend a high-profile funeral; two kids play hooky and test a possible correlation between deep-heating ointment and penile growth. Rickman deftly handles these transitions at first, particularly in a neat early crane shot that swoops from one character to another, taking in the lay of the entire town in the process. With the help of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, he composes pretty pictures throughout of couples isolated against stark backgrounds, and his directorial control is always evident.

So evident, in fact, that the tasteful white-on-white compositions start to evoke something very much like cabin fever. Every actor wields the weight of his words like a cudgel; every stroll from A to B becomes a trudge across permafrost. Rickman deserves credit for not playing up the script's mawkish wake-up-and-live tendencies, but his glacial pace mutes what earthy humor the script has: The movie doesn't so much capture the slow passage of time as detain it. When coupled with Michael Kamen's drippy New Age noodling on the soundtrack, the effect is like watching On Golden Pond performed by frostbite victims.

Much has been made of the casting of Law and Thompson, mother and daughter in real life, who get a prickly rhythm going that gives their elliptical conversations the proper mix of affection and annoyance. But their performances, like the script's transitions and themes, are engineered so carefully that the characters fail to come alive. The only thing that makes the movie seem substantial is its very sluggishness. For a movie about the renewal of the spirit, The Winter Guest has a way of sucking the life out of you.

--Jim Ridley

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The Winter Guest

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The Winter Guest

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