The Winter Guest
1997, R, 110 min. Directed by Alan Rickman. Starring Phyllida Law, Emma Thompson, Gary Hollywood, Arlene Cockburn, Sheila Reid, Sandra Voe, Douglas Murphy, Sean Biggerstaff.
REVIEWED By Robert Faires, Fri., March 20, 1998
Sometimes the coldest season exhibits an austere beauty -- trees stretching bony limbs toward a somber sky the shade of lead, landscapes leeched of color, revealing sharp edges everywhere -- but it can be awfully tough to focus on winter's graces with an icy wind blowing on your neck and a cold ache deep in your bones. The chill is overwhelming; it obliterates all thoughts save those of getting warm. This intimate drama of eight Scots groping for warmth -- emotionally as much as physically -- in the midst of a bleak midwinter strives to project the majesty in the season, but much of the time it just blows cold, prompting you to think of little more than getting through this movie and baking under a heat lamp. Granted, a story set on a day so cold that the sea has frozen needs to exude a certain icy atmosphere -- and certain elements of the film succeed admirably in that: Seamus McGarvey's black-and-white cinematography captures winter's stark look, the pallor and deep shadows and crispness of outline, and Michael Kamen's score resounds with isolated, echoing notes from a piano, evocative of icicles dropping into an icy pond -- but in its story, The Winter Guest's chill overwhelms everything else. Playwright Sharman Macdonald and actor Alan Rickman, adapting Macdonald's stage play, weave a tale among four disparate pairs of villagers: Elspeth (Law) and her widowed daughter Frances (Thompson), who's still paralyzed by grief; Frances' teenage son Alex (Hollywood) and a young woman, Nita (Cockburn), who's attracted to him; two pre-pubescent schoolboys (Murphy and Biggerstaff) playing hooky; and two aged friends (Reid and Voe) going to the funeral of a stranger. The characters are sympathetic, and the actors do their bit to make them appealing as well -- Law is especially memorable as Elspeth, fussy and funny and stubborn and shrewd -- yet they seem frozen by a story, the outcomes of which are inevitable and transparent. Chekhov is reputed to have said that if a gun is introduced in a play's first act, it must go off before the final curtain. The Winter Guest extends that to the pistol below a young man's waist, and to cameras, too. Early on, it becomes all too clear that Thompson's Frances, a photographer who has not lifted her lens since her husband's death, will click the shutter before the credits roll, just as it's clear that Alex will snap Nita's picture, so to speak. These telegraphed climaxes rob the story of its drama as surely as winter steals the leaves from the trees, leaving us a film that's little more than a few chilly scenes of winter. Rickman's directorial debut isn't devoid of warmth, or austere beauty, for that matter, but it doesn't generate enough of either to compensate for the time it leaves us out in the cold.