Secrets and guilty memories simmer without coming to the required boil in Aussie mood piece “Closed for Winter.” Toplining London-based Oz thrush Natalie Imbruglia as a woman haunted by the long-ago disappearance of her sister, writer-director James Bogle’s first feature since “In the Winter Dark” (1997) struggles to translate the delicate psychological textures of Georgia Blain’s highly regarded 1998 novel into a character study auds can fully embrace. Modest returns appear likely on limited domestic release April 23, and Imbruglia’s credible perf and sizable U.K. fanbase might help the pic land a Blighty arthouse berth.
Barely going through the motions of life as a low-level employee at an Adelaide theater, 30-ish Elise (Imbruglia) is consumed by thoughts of her sister. Some 20 years earlier, precocious 13-year-old Frances (Danielle Catanzariti) vanished without a trace when she and Elise (Tiahn Green) snuck out to a beach near their house. The unresolved mystery has also taken a severe toll on Elise’s widowed mother, Dorothy (Deborah Kennedy), a virtual shut-in who obsessively stockpiles newspapers and corresponds with other grieving parents.
Flashbacks to events leading to Frances’ disappearance are woven into the movie as Elise tries to put the issue to some sort of rest in the present day. Though helmer Bogle establishes an intriguing aura around a protag imprisoned by her past, he undoes the good work with some wayward judgments of tone, notably in Elise’s romance with co-worker Martin (Daniel Frederiksen).
It’s hard to believe that, even in her fragile state, Elise would want to live with such a socially inept fusspot. Merrily incinerating Dorothy’s newspapers when they’re finally introduced, Martin and his annoying tics undercut the pic’s air of quiet contemplation.
Moving back home after Dorothy suffers a bad fall, Elise starts to piece together fragments of the past with the help of Dr. John Mills (Tony Martin), a kindly old neighbor with an interest in photography. Late-arriving revelations about Elise’s deceased father promise much, but too often viewers are kept at arm’s length by long silences where meaningful dialogue is required.
Imbruglia acquits herself well in her first lead role. Believably expressing what it must be like to live with ungovernable sorrow, the actress proves to have much more than just a face the camera adores. Younger cast members also impress. Catanzariti (“Hey, Hey It’s Esther Blueburger”) is terrific as the rebellious, cigarette-smoking Frances, and Green memorably captures the awe in which innocent young girls can hold their seemingly grownup, adolescent sisters.
Technical package is first class. Kim Batterham’s striking widescreen imagery casts a warm glow over the youthful summer flashbacks, with tighter, cooler framing for Elise’s troubled present. Rita Zanchetta’s outstanding production design features Dorothy’s house as a time-frozen mausoleum of anguish that creaks and groans with what seems to be its own shallow breath.