It seems contradictory to describe a movie as both expansive in scope and personal. But The Winter Guest, the first offering from director Alan Rickman, manages to deserve both bits of praise. By focusing on a tiny corner of northern Scotland, and a few people who inhabit it, Rickman quite handily paints the human condition as a portrait in miniature.
The movie's plot is actually four stories, all intertwining, and each focusing on a pair of characters: elderly Elspeth (Phyllida Law) and her widowed daughter Frances (Emma Thompson, Law's real-life daughter); Frances's son Alex (Gary Hollywood) and his first love interest, Nita (Arlene Cockburn); funeralgoers Chloe (Sandra Voe) and Lily (Sheila Reid); and Sam (Douglas Murphy) and Tom (Sean Biggerstaff), a pair of boys playing hooky. The pairings highlight the characters' ages, but not shallowly; the dialogue, adapted by Rickman and Sharman Macdonald from Macdonald's original stage play, occasionally blurs the generational lines. Chloe and Lily bicker over the window seat on an otherwise empty bus and pore over obituaries like middle-schoolers with a slam book; Sam and Tom ponder seriously the art of beach-fire building and the responsibility engendered by the discovery of abandoned kittens; Elspeth petulantly insists that she doesn't need Frances's help crossing icy ground during a walk.
In fact, that's the first thing we see -- ice, and Elspeth marching determinedly across it. This particular Scottish day is so cold that the sea itself is frozen. For much of the movie, Elspeth is the only character who doesn't seem constricted -- snowbound, as it were. Frances, we see quickly, is still mourning her husband's death; her personal life has stagnated, and her career as a photographer has begun to slide from art into commercial jobs, interrupted by a never-ending series of pictures of her late husband. Elspeth warns Frances that soon she'll be reduced to shooting weddings if things don't change. That approach is hardly the best way to go about warming a child gone frosty, but just as Elspeth tramps stubbornly across the frozen ground to reach her family physically, she doesn't worry about delicacy while trying to recover their iced-over souls. Even people who don't react favorably to her -- Alex envisioning the battle of wills that must be going on between his mother and grandmother, Lily and Chloe speculating about the health of a woman they don't know -- at least react.
Somewhat disappointingly, not all the characters are as riveting. Alex and Nita prove the least inspired matchup, due largely to the reservedness of Hollywood's acting. True, Alex is emotionally numb from his father's death and his mother's reaction to it, but it's still difficult to find any sympathy for a character whose every move broadcasts I don't want you to know anything about me. Even Chloe and Lily, who appear less frequently than any of the other pairs, inject more intensity into their banter than Hollywood does into what, it's implied, is Alex's first sexual encounter.
Sam and Tom first appear nearly as unpromising -- just a pair of rowdy boys -- but their turning point comes with its own symbol, the fire they build on a frozen beach. Even more than their fire, their fierce contemplations on the world around them, from penis length to the exploration of the unknown, stave off the encroaching cold.
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With excruciating slowness, Frances comes to realize that the world from which she has tried to isolate herself, personified in her encroaching mother, actually does need her, and she needs it ("And if ye don't, ye could lie," observes Elspeth, both wryly and desperately). Yes, it's like watching ice melt. But it's very beautiful ice.
Without quoting the poem explicitly, all four of the stories echo the Dylan Thomas refrain, "Rage, rage against the dying of the light." The characters who are willing to lash out against the darkness of winter -- whether Elspeth, by dragging herself and her daughter out to confront the cold, or Tom, by daring the ice to swallow him and his rescued kitten -- are our heroes, while Alex, content to hide away inside, frustrates us with his failure. The Winter Guest shows us that it's not dying that requires courage, but living.
The Winter Guest.
Directed by Alan Rickman. With Phyllida Law, Emma Thompson, Gary Hollywood and Arlene Cockburn.