Senseless sensibilities

Novice director Alan Rickman traps his excellent cast in a frozen sea of pretension.

This is the kind of art film that makes people hate art films. First-time director Alan Rickman (the tender swain of Sense and Sensibility) brings altogether too much Art to this portrait of Frances (Emma Thompson), a Scottish art photographer whose husband has recently passed away. The film follows her and seven other characters through a day so bitterly cold that the North Sea has frozen over.

The Winter Guest

directed by Alan Rickman

starring Emma Thompson, Phyllida Law

opens Friday, theater TBA

Rickman, in turn, freezes his characters over. Not in water, but in good taste. He rigidly controls every aspect of his film's look: the wintry landscape, the weathered furniture, the twee little dream of a Scottish town. No one wears acrylic. There are no billboards. There is nothing cheap or tawdry anywhere. When two young boys climb on rocking horses, the old wooden nags are elegantly distressed, like a Martha Stewart weekend project. ("Take an old toy and rub it 23 times with three different grades of sandpaper till it achieves that aristocratic, well-loved look!") At one point, Emma Thompson pulls out a blow-dryer and I thought, "Thank God! Plastic!" Still, it is a quiet, tasteful shade of gray plastic.

Much has been made of the fact that Thompson plays opposite her real-life mother, Phyllida Law, as Frances' mother, Elspeth. But The Winter Guest is, in fact, an ensemble piece. The characters break up into pairs whose paths cross throughout the chilly day, but whose task it is to work out their own relationships. Frances and Elspeth bicker and go for a walk. Lily (Sheila Reid) and Chloe (Sandra Voe), two old ladies in black with old-fashioned, fragile-looking ankles, take the bus to a nearby town to attend a funeral and have some nice cake. Sam (Douglas Murphy) and Tom (Sean Biggerstaff), two young boys, skip school, hang out on the beach, and try to enlarge their penises with unguents. (In a typically egregious display of this film's lack of reality, these two have no plastic attached to them in any way. No toys, no tape players, no Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle lunch boxes.) The only romantic couple, Alex (Gary Hollywood), who is Frances' teenage son, and Nita (Arlene Cockburn), a lusty tomboy, go the classic route and court each other.

Rickman adapted the screenplay from the stage play of the same name by Scotswoman Sharman McDonald. (In fact, several of the players, including Law, appeared in the play at its 1995 debut run at the Almeida Theatre in London.) And lovely, well-written moments abound, delivered in fine style by the confident cast. Elspeth comes over to Frances' house to try to hound her morose daughter into cheering up, but she has a funny way of going about it: She nags Frances about her spiky new haircut. As grandson Alex says, standing outside the house, "My grandmother's in there. My mother's had her hair cut. It's a bloody battlefield."

A beautifully telling scene has Elspeth trying to borrow a sweater from Frances so she'll be warm enough to go for a walk. "I'll get you a sweater!" cries Frances at her muddling, loving mum. (Thompson bravely plays Frances a little unlikable.) She goes to her closet and starts pelting sweaters at Elspeth, who, caught in the maelstrom of knits, looks windblown and amused. She knows filial love when she sees it, even in its guise of hostility.

The other couples also find common ground in quietly affecting ways: The little boys share a smoke, the old ladies slip over the ice together, the young lovers do a self-conscious mating ritual of washing each others' feet. But Rickman shoots every single moment in black-and-white artistry. It's like looking at a pretentious young art-school photographer's portfolio come to life. Interminably slow life. Not very lifelike life. Shot after lengthy shot focuses on the spare image of the ice-locked sea, symbolizing—in mortifyingly literal, A equals B manner—our frigid human condition. This is the kind of empty symbolism that is merely a simulacrum of intelligent filmmaking. It intends to make the regular art-house audience go home feeling smugly brainy. The folks who wandered in by mistake go home feeling confirmed in their hatred of art films.

What's worse, Rickman disrupts the lovely structure of the film—the delicately balanced pairings of characters—with this hopped-up photography. His film subtly and inexorably promotes the viewpoint of Frances, the photographer/widow. Her photographs, displayed throughout her house, are echoes of the larger look of the film—chilly, pretentious, not quite interesting. While she should be just one of many protagonists in this quiet ronde, she emerges as the heroine. With the tiresome Frances thus promoted, The Winter Guest overstays its welcome.

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