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Coming in From the Cold

The superb British actor Alan Rickman, star of Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Sense and Sensibility, makes his directorial debut with The Winter Guest, a meditation on life, death and human relations that is as elusive as it is fascinating. It's the kind of film that turns over in the mind, changing shape and yielding new meanings, long after you leave the theater.

The setting is a Scottish seaside village in February, on a single day so achingly cold that the North Sea itself has frozen. Rickman and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (also a noted still photographer) have captured the town's chill landscapes and seascapes beautifully, in muted shades of gray, black and taupe, so that they tend to express the moods and traumas of the characters. This device was, of course, once the hallmark of Ingmar Bergman.

The central exchange here is a daylong chat--antagonistic, wearily familiar and, sometimes, remarkably tender--between Frances (Emma Thompson), a photographer paralyzed by grief following the death of her husband, and her aging, meddlesome mother, Elspeth (Phyllida Law), who has made a surprise visit in her well-worn fur coat. Between Frances's icy despair and Elspeth's distracted reveries, we sense an unbridgeable gulf. Mutual need seems to have vanished into old resentment. But on this day, as the two women take their long, cold walk together, we witness a series of little epiphanies, subtle and open-ended, in which past and future, mother and daughter, begin to be reconciled.

"I'm the same inside as when I was seventeen," the mother observes. "I hate my old face." But by day's close, the two women (rendered more vivid because Law and Thompson are mother and child offscreen, too) seem to be moving toward a bargain with time itself.

Adapted from a play by Sharman Macdonald, with whom Rickman collaborated on the screenplay, The Winter Guest broadens its view and casts more light by glimpsing three other pairings of people with questions of life on their minds. Frances's son, Alex (Gary Hollywood), bewildered by his father's death, edges out of numbness and into something like first love in an encounter with a feisty girl named Nits (Arlene Cockburn). A couple of hooky-playing preteens (Douglas Murphy and Sean Biggerstaff) explore the frozen cliffs while wrangling, often hilariously, with the mysteries of their parents' behavior and the comic terrors of puberty. And two very proper ladies in black (Sheila Reid and Sandra Voe) wryly confront their own mortality by attending the funeral of a stranger in another town. That's their habit--funerals.

By the end of this quietly observant, generous movie, everyone has made tentative steps toward some new stage of life, whether it's early spring or deep winter, and the whole understated enterprise seems to be suffused with a kind of Joycean radiance. But another Irish writer came to mind as I watched. It was George Bernard Shaw, playwright and master aphorist, who once said: "Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh."

That, if anything, might be a fitting encapsulation of this haunting and lovely piece of filmmaking that otherwise defies all easy description, perhaps even language itself. Here's the highest praise I can think of: It's a picture for grownups.--Gallo

The Winter Guest.
Screenplay by Sharman Macdonald and Alan Rickman, from a play by Macdonald. Directed by Alan Rickman. With Phyllida Law, Emma Thompson, Gary Hollywood and Arlene Cockburn.

 
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