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The Boston Phoenix Cold Comfort

"The Winter Guest" deserves a visit.

By Peter Keough

JANUARY 20, 1998:  THE WINTER GUEST, Directed by Alan Rickman. Written by Alan Rickman and Sharman Macdonald based on Macdonald's play. With Emma Thompson, Phyllida Law, Gary Hollywood, Arlene Cockburn, Sheila Reid, Sandra Voe, Douglas Murphy, Sean Biggerstaff, and Tom Watson. A Fine Line Features release.

There's a chill of mortality in the air these days, at least in movie theaters. Joining Titanic and The Sweet Hereafter in this celebration of the Great Inevitable is Alan Rickman's directorial debut, The Winter Guest. Not nearly as traumatic as the other two -- it could be compared to Titanic without the ship, only the iceberg, or The Sweet Hereafter minus the bus -- The Winter Guest meanders about its subject with the insinuating persistence of a freezing breeze.

Based on the play by Sharman Macdonald, who co-wrote the script, Guest is dense in dialogue (blurred at times by the thick accents of some of the cast) and almost devoid of action, qualities Rickman for the most part turns into virtues. Although it wavers at times from the precise to the precious, it's an auspicious first film, a stark, sometimes stagy, surprisingly funny snow globe of a movie that's both cozy and insidiously unsettling.

Having great actors on hand and having a great actor's intuition in directing them is a big plus for Rickman, as is the bleakly stunning setting -- a desolate Scottish coastal town on a winter's day so cold the sea has frozen (The Winter Guest favors the pathetic fallacy). An opening shot finds Frances (Emma Thompson) embalmed in bed in her frosty, whitewashed bedroom. Intercut is the progress of a tiny dark figure across a snowfield -- her mother, Elspeth (Thompson's real-life mother, Phyllida Law; the two have the mother/daughter thing down so well that at times it's downright annoying), the ostensible, unexpected guest of the title. Reaching the village, she slips and falls, and the camera sails off from her and out to sea, tracking over the ice and toward the limitless mist beyond: Frances's dream, it seems, one from which she starts to wakefulness.

Death, in fact, has already paid a call on Frances. She's a photographer, and her house is haunted by prints of her last study -- her now dead husband. Elspeth arrives to rouse her from her mourning -- to discuss her loss, her plans, and her new haircut (Mom approves only of the first). Elspeth prevails upon Frances to stroll the monochromatic streets and seascape, camera at hand, and the two unknowingly join three other pairs of wanderers, each vaguely drawn to the same destination.

Although the characters are schematic -- each pair representing a different age of humanity coming to grips with the big questions -- Rickman deftly follows their sometimes intersecting paths. In addition to the mother and daughter there's Frances's teenage son Alex (Gary Hollywood) and the hoydenish Nita (Arlene Cockburn), who meet on the street and gravitate to a hot bath and a warm fireplace. Filling out the other demographics are two schoolboys, scurrilous Sam (Douglas Murphy) and doubting Tom (Sean Biggerstaff), who discuss penis enlargement and the futility of life on the eerily blank shoreline; and a pair of elderly pals, birdlike Lily (Sheila Reid) and doughy Chloe (Sandra Voe), who take a bus to a funeral -- their way of killing time until someone attends their own.

Macdonald's dialogue veers from Beckett-like flintiness to Hallmark treacle; the rowdy dialogue of the young lads as they talk nasty and nihilistic is especially unconvincing. At times, too, the ellipses and non sequiturs seem less like the rhythms of real talk than a mannered imitation. When spoken by Thompson and Law, however (and surprisingly by Hollywood and Cockburn, who bring erotic tension and adolescent vulnerability and anarchy to their roles), the lines are like brittle rime glazing depths of feeling.

As in the masterful opening sequence, though, Rickman is at his most powerful when wordless. At times some stagy business creaks -- the discovery of abandoned kittens nearly undoes the ending. For the most part, however, his visual sense is assured, poetic, and subtle. Framed by rocks, silhouetted figures peering into the sea possess the grandeur of Caspar David Friedrich canvases, and the barren architecture of the town looms like a labyrinth of solitude. Most compelling, though, are his unabashed close-ups of faces: Thompson's astonishment as she sees her mother clearly at last and reaches for her camera is epiphanic. After this distinguished Guest appearance, Rickman shouldn't remain a stranger to directing.

Guest speaker

Actor Alan Rickman's debut feature, The Winter Guest, was sadly appropriate last September when the director introduced it at the Venice and Montreal Film Festivals. His meditation on mortality set in a frozen Scottish coastal town and starring the mother-daughter team of Phyllida Law and Emma Thompson complemented the mood of audiences mourning the death of Princess Diana.

"Emma and I were in Venice the Sunday morning we got the news," he remembers. "I know Emma felt a very personal connection because they are very similar ages and both are on a journey as single women. I don't want to go into that too much; it's too personal to Emma. But you can imagine. There was something about Emma's essence that reminded me about her. And also, I had to introduce the film in Montreal a day or two afterward. So I did speak about that. Whatever are the truths or complexities in there . . . I think it was upheld by that brilliant speech her brother gave . . . she was on the side of the more sensitive world. The film tries to put a hand up for the simple connections between people worth hanging on to. So I don't think it was so much about death, it was about life. People are facing all sorts of difficult cliff edges; this film is about the fact that next to you, if you only noticed, is somebody putting their hand out."

In the case of The Winter Guest, some of the hands extended are those of a parent and a child. Rickman was first inspired to do the film after listening to Scottish playwright Sharman Macdonald tell him an anecdote about herself and her ailing mother. He encouraged her to turn it into a play; eventually the two developed it into the film.

"She was a writer I greatly respect and her work has often contained as an essential theme relationships between mothers and daughters. It was something she was talking about, a few images she gave me of this moment in her life that was where she was having to become the parent. And I've since experienced that. Many people have. Or will. It doesn't get written about that often. It's a shadowy, unspoken part of people's lives."

To give flesh and blood to this shadowy area, Rickman was fortunate enough to enlist Emma Thompson -- with whom he worked in an opposite capacity in Sense and Sensibility, in which he was part of the cast and she was the screenwriter -- and her mother, Phyllida Law. "They've been cast together before, but they've never done anything like this before where they've nailed their colors to the mast. The mother/daughter thing we just treated as a happy accident. It had nothing to do with the daily shooting except they were happy to share a trailer. You take it for granted; you don't realize what you've got until you look at it in the editing room. Then with a shock you realize they tip their head at the same angle when they listen to the boy at the piano. Or in the scene where they move around the fridge with a carton of milk, they're not physically careful with each other. There's an intimacy."

There's an intimacy, also, to the film's bleak setting, which Rickman tried to make a kind of objective correlative to Macdonald's meticulously crafted language. "I kept talking about moonscapes to the DP [director of photography]. I was looking for surfaces that didn't look like Scotland or anywhere, really. There is something about the writing that isolates the characters, and because it isn't quite naturalism it needed to be a background with its own thoughts, not just an adjunct they're walking on, but something with an energy. And something eternal; what they walk into shouldn't be completely depressing, it should also be optimistic. I hope it's funny as well, in the face of all that. Even if it's literally about life and death."

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