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Metro Pulse Heart of Ice

"The Winter Guest" will leave you cold with its glacial pacing.

By Coury Turczyn

APRIL 20, 1998:  The Winter Guest is the kind of film that ought to make critics spring to their thesauruses in search of epic platitudes. It's got all the elements every critic expects from Great Cinema: It's a foreign movie set in a Scottish seaside village, which is beautifully evoked by masterful cinematography and composition; it stars two Grand Dames of English drama, Emma Thompson and her mother Phyllidia Law; it's the directorial debut of a wonderful actor, Alan Rickman; it's based on a stage play; and it has themes about death and life and relationships... It's an art movie with a capital "A."

So what's not to like? Why am I so unaffected by the pageant of life being spread out before me on the screen? Perhaps it's my fault—maybe I've gorged so heavily on popcorn movies that I've lost my taste for subtler film pleasures. Damn you, George Lucas! Burn in hell, Quentin Tarantino! Look what you've done to me, to pop culture, to society itself! Thank heaven for the British, who can still make a movie in which people just talk...and talk...and talk...and then talk some more. Midway through The Winter Guest, as I began to lose motor control over my eyelids, I snapped to attention and gritted my teeth—by Ingmar, I will sit through this entire movie! I will track every nuance in the characters' facial expressions, I will calculate the meaning of each scene's setting, and I will keep my eyes peeled for any and all moments of symbolism!

Well, I did make it to the end of The Winter Guest, and I did appreciate many of its technical qualities—great acting, lovely imagery, sharp intercutting. Nevertheless, for all its noble intentions, The Winter Guest fails as an engaging drama—it's a movie about the subtleties of self-knowledge in the face of personal misery, of individual growth, of reaching out to others. In other words, regular ol' life itself. But it's a drama lacking in heart, with unnatural dialogue and slow pacing more appropriate for the stage than the screen.

Thompson plays Frances, a woman paralyzed with grief over the death of her husband. Her more well-adjusted son Alex (Gary Hollywood) tries to draw her out, but she mostly hides in the bathroom, contemplating a move to Australia to escape her woes. Her mother Elspeth (Law) suddenly appears at the house, determined to jar her daughter out of her immobility. And she does this mostly by carping in an irritating tone of voice, a crone unleashed. Frances responds by holding her hands over her ears, but Elspeth eventually forces her to go for a walk with her through the frozen village.

Meanwhile, Alex is on his way to school when he meets Nita (Arlene Cockburn), an attractive tomboy with a crush on him, causing him to skip classes and pursue the possibility of losing his virginity.

Meanwhile, two younger boys—Sam (Douglas Murphy) and Tom (Sean Biggerstaff)—are also skipping school. The sea doesn't often freeze over, and they're determined to have some adventure. They do this with long talks about the demands of being a 14-year-old and postulation about how to make their penises larger.

Meanwhile, two old women—Lily (Sheila Reid) and Chloe (Sandra Voe)—who are obsessed with death, take a bus trip to enjoy a funeral and some cake.

Rickman cuts from couple to couple, tracking their day in the icy town as the characters talk at length about themselves. Some of this is amusing stuff, particularly the boys' theories about heat rub and its interaction with the male member. And the scenes between Alex and Nita are tense with sexual discovery. But the central focus of the movie—Frances and Elspeth's journey to mutual understanding and a renewed desire to live life—mostly slows the proceedings down. While Thompson and Law bring a true sense of mother-daughter friction and familiarity to their scenes, their actual lines don't advance the "plot" very far. It's like waiting for the proverbial watched pot to boil—their scenes simmer along, but never attain the heat we (American?) audiences expect.

Likewise, I kept expecting to find a link between all these characters. Why were they chosen for inclusion in this movie? Why are we following these particular people, and what is it about their day that relates to the central story here? Let's see—the two boys represent youth, the two old ladies are death (but wait—Elspeth is the one who's dying)...oh, I give up. When a movie makes you want to analyze it while you're actually watching it, that means its narrative has failed—and in this case, there's no real story to hold The Winter Guest together. All its conflicts are internal...just like a stage play, which is where these characters probably should have stayed.

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