Wednesday December 24, 1997
"The Winter Guest" is a beautiful, deeply moving film that teams Emma Thompson with her mother, veteran actress Phyllida Law, and marks an auspicious film directorial debut for actor Alan Rickman. It is not quite the picture you might expect when a celebrated star and her mother, also a much-respected player, are playing a mother and daughter. You are prepared for high drama, but "The Winter Guest" goes against all manner of theatrics--and as it turns out, this is all for the good.
It doesn't seem that way, however, at first. That's because just when Law and Thompson are working up some steam, Rickman cuts away to one of several other stories. But when all their strands start pulling together you appreciate just how effective the strategies of "The Winter Guest" really are.
The setting is a Scottish coastal town so cold that Law's Elspeth can remember only one other time in her life the sea has actually frozen over. When we meet her, she's trudging through the snow from some distance to visit her daughter Frances, who lives in a lovely old townhouse with her teenage son Alex (Gary Hollywood). Clearly, Frances has gone through some wrenching experience, and we soon realize her husband, beloved by his wife and son alike, has recently died.
Around the time Elspeth is finally arriving at her daughter's home, Rickman is already starting up parallel stories. A pretty girl, Nita (Arlene Cockburn), waiting for a bus across the street from Frances' house, is coming on to Alex; two elderly ladies, Lily (Sheila Reid) and Chloe (Sandra Voe), are also waiting for the bus. Later on, we'll meet two boys, Sam (Douglas Murphy) and Tom (Sean Biggerstaff), who look to be about 13, who are poking around the rocks by the sea.
Frances is not thrilled with the prospect of a visit by her mother. Elspeth is garrulous, opinionated, outspoken and, in a word, tiresome. She's also gutsy, canny and vital, with a passionate love of nature. She's too judgmental to be any real comfort to her daughter, but as the day progresses we realize just how physically frail Elspeth is; not surprisingly, she's in total denial in regard to it.
While proclaiming her independence and self-reliance, she is actually hoping for a chance to be closer to her daughter, who she fears may move to Australia. In any event, both Elspeth and Nita try to persuade mother and son to start letting go of the dead husband and father. Meanwhile, Lily and Chloe, who have nothing better to do than attend funerals, talk of death as the two boys, most engaging and authentic, talk of life.
In a highly affecting, wholly implicit way, "The Winter Guest," which Rickman and Sharman Macdonald adapted from her play, reminds us that no matter how much of a cliche it may be, people really do need people, whether they admit it or not. People also need people who do not necessarily need them in return, however, and in this instance Frances must come to a decision about her mother.
"The Winter Guest" is inevitably about love, friendship and responsibility. The frozen sea is of course a symbol of the state of the mother-daughter relationship, but at the end it acquires a different meaning: Life itself is like walking on ice with all its adventures and perils.
You can sense that "The Winter Guest" started out as a play, but its transposition to screen has been accomplished with an elegant ease, and its setting has much visual splendor. It's a virtual given that an actor as accomplished as Rickman will get the luminous portrayals from his cast that he does, but beyond this he displays an acute sense of pacing, of knowing when to pause and how long to hold a scene to let meaning and emotion seep in.
Law and Thompson are glorious together in this admirably understated movie. "You have great bone structure" Elspeth says to Frances. "You get it from me"--and indeed Law and Thompson are strikingly similar-looking beauties. We now also know where Thompson got at least some of her formidable acting ability, too.
The Winter Guest, 1997. R, for language and brief sexuality. A Fine Line presentation. Director Alan Rickman. Producers Ken Lipper, Edward R. Pressman, Steve Clark-Hall. Screenplay by Rickman and Sharman Macdonald; based on Macdonald's play. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey. Editor Scott Thomas. Costumes Joan Bergin. Music Michael Kamen. Production designer Robin Cameron Don. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes. Phyllida Law as Elspeth. Emma Thompson as Frances. Gary Hollywood as Alex. Arlene Cockburn as Nita.