When an actor turns director, and then stays behind the camera, a strange thing often happens. Whether it comes consciously or unconsciously, the overall tone of the film manages to encapsulate his approach to acting. The Winter Guest draws its strengths from the same kind of brooding, inquisitive quietness that characterizes some of Alan Rickman's best screen appearances (including Truly Madly Deeply, Sense and Sensibility, An Awfully Big Adventure and Michael Collins).
The Winter Guest, based on a play by Sharman Macdonald (Rickman and Macdonald co-wrote the screenplay), is set in a ruggedly beautiful Scottish seaside town where four intersecting duos take a break from their routines and spend the coldest day of the year thawing their frozen emotions.
Rickman, who also directed the stage version, makes this all about nuance, the interplay between people, the hidden things they don't say and the hurtful things they do.
A strong-willed woman, Elspeth (Phyllida Law), makes her way along the coast to see her daughter Frances (Emma Thompson, Law's real-life daughter), a visit that isn't particularly welcome. Both women are now widows, left to confront each other without the shields and distractions of their men. The relationship is tempestuous, compounded by Frances worrying about her mother's health.
During the same day, Frances' teenage son begins a relationship with a willful girl who's had her eye on him; two boys on the brink of adolescence skip school and discuss their futures with trepidation, and a pair of old women attend a funeral which is transformed from a social event to a memento mori.
Extremely stagy in its dialogue (full of the types of revelatory speeches that don't translate well on-screen), The Winter Guest is paradoxically very cinematic and extremely connected to the landscape. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey captures the startlingly revealing nature of winter light in a way that it becomes another character, informing the action.
A lovely film in a minor key, The Winter Guest doesn't add up to anything earth-shattering, but beautifully captures a specific moment of transition for these people, and a spectacular winter's day.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.