Acclaimed British actor Alan Rickman makes a stagy but accomplished directing debut in "The Winter Guest," an intimate drama tracking four pairs of Scots in a bleak seacoast town on the coldest day of the year.

Acclaimed British actor Alan Rickman makes a stagy but accomplished directing debut in “The Winter Guest,” an intimate drama tracking four pairs of Scots in a bleak seacoast town on the coldest day of the year. Pic is likely to split audiences down the middle, according to whether they find this adaptation of Sharman MacDonald’s successful play delicate and moving, or artificial and theatrical, which it is by turns. The Fine Line release will need to hunt down the right audiences to make pic work Stateside, where the cast’s Scottish accents could raise a barrier. But pic has a major worldwide selling point in the warmly expressive perf of Emma Thompson, flanked by her real-life mother, Phyllida Law, as her cantankerously meddlesome mom.

Frances (Thompson), a newly widowed and deeply grieving photographer, is flirting with the idea of moving to Australia with her teenage son, Alex (Gary Hollywood), to escape her ghostly memories. The arrival of her aged mother (Law), who stumbles into town through the icy fields and streets, aggressively forces her to weigh her longing for the dead against love and caring for the living, herself included.

While they take a walk along a literally frozen sea (courtesy of f/x, but an effective symbol throughout), Alex awkwardly approaches his first sexual experience with a provocative neighbor girl (Arlene Cockburn). Pic has little to add on this oft-filmed scenario, nor do the young actors.

Another pair of women, Chloe (Sandra Voe) and Lily (Sheila Reid), provide comic relief as two elderly biddies who get their kicks attending strangers’ funerals. Morbidly funny as professional mourners, they are thrown away in an ending contrived to underline their mutual dependency. Less sentimental are schoolboys Tom (Sean Biggerstaff) and Sam (Douglas Murphy), who skip school to play on the beach and discuss their growing pains.

Their story has an intriguing mystical ending that makes one wonder who “the winter guest” really is. Intercut likes layers of mille-feuille, the four stories, which rarely overlap, assume a monotonous rhythm at times, echoed by Michael Kamen’s insistent piano score (written for the stage play). This structure keeps pic from building up emotional steam, and stresses the delicacy (and theatricality) of the characterizations.

The film is full of big themes — life/death, age/youth, masculine/feminine, self/other — that will engage thoughtful audiences. But it is the tense interaction between Thompson and Law, grousing and stinging each other, that grounds the picture and pulls it together. Bearing an eerie resemblance, the real-life mother and daughter exploit their natural chemistry and considerable talent in warm perfs. Rickman’s acting background is evident in the fine ensemble work from a top-flight cast, many reprised from the play.

Giving film a striking visual style that goes a long way toward liberating it from its origins, Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography plays with shades of white and ivory, making the stark coastal buildings, sky and ice the frozen witnesses to the characters’ dramas. His visuals are echoed in Robin Cameron Don’s appealing and stylish interiors.

The Winter Guest

British

Production

A Fine Line release (in U.S.) of a Capitol Films presentation of a Pressman/Lipper production, in association with Fine Line Features, Channel Four Films, the Scottish Arts Council National Lottery Fund. (International sales: Capitol Films, London.) Produced by Ken Lipper, Edward R. Pressman, Steve Clark-Hall. Directed by Alan Rickman. Screenplay, Rickman, Sharman MacDonald, based on the play by MacDonald.

Crew

Camera (color), Seamus McGarvey; editor, Scott Thomas; music, Michael Kamen; production design, Robin Cameron Don; costume design, Joan Bergin; sound (Dolby), Colin Nicholson; associate producer, Alan J. (Willie) Wands; assistant director, Chris Newman; casting, Joyce Nettles. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Aug. 27, 1997. Running time: 106 MIN.

With

Elspeth - Phyllida Law Frances - Emma Thompson Alex - Gary Hollywood Nita - Arlene Cockburn Lily - Sheila Reid Chloe - Sandra Voe Sam - Douglas Murphy Tom - Sean Biggerstaff
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