As if Emma Thompson weren't enough of a gift from heaven, now we have her mother, too, Phyllida Law. And the two of them in the same film, playing daughter and mother! Law is a highly experienced actress in British theater and TV and film, but The Winter Guest (Fine Line) is the first time she has had a prominent role in a picture seen here, and it's certainly our first chance to see her play her daughter's mother.
When she and Thompson are on screen together, it's almost possible to discern what Law was and what Thompson will be. Apart from this quasi-familial pleasure, Law quickly shows herself to be an actress of truth and chuckle, all controlled with sure technique. Familiarity helps: in this script derived from a play by Sharman Macdonald, Law plays a role that she originated in the theater.
Macdonald co-wrote the screenplay with the distinguished actor Alan Rickman (of Sense and Sensibility), who, we're told, had a hand in urging Macdonald to write the original play. Here Rickman makes his directing debut, which is another blessing. Unsurprisingly, his work with the cast is subtle and precise, but he also has an extraordinary eye. The film's setting is a snowbound Scottish coastal village, and perhaps that is what prompted a northern "view" like Bergman's, austere and crisp. Yet, with his outstanding cinematographer, Seamus McGarvey, Rickman also suggests certain Japanese filmmakers--Ozu, Imamura--with a sense that many shots have been incised, not photographed, and with a tendency toward the rectilinear, straight lines used vertically and horizontally. The result is the optimum: the film looks like what it's about.
Thompson plays a photographer whose husband, powerful in her life, has recently died. She lives with her adolescent son, and her mother has arrived unexpectedly, presumably to help in some way. Relations between Law and her grandson are warm; relations between mother and daughter are fairly normal--easily tapped antagonisms and (even) rivalries, overlying a base of tacit love.
The film knits various strands in and around the village: the son's first encounter with sex, endearing rather than successful; Thompson's attempts to accept, rather than change, the anomie of her widowhood; Law's attempts to be both reserved and available. There's a sort of chorus of two middle-aged women waiting for a bus, taking the bus, and showing up at a church service. There's a charming encounter between Law and a boy sitting by a small fire amidst the rocks, with Thompson chancing along to take their picture. There's that boy later wandering out over the frozen sea into the mist.
The trouble with the film is that, though these and other matters are handled exquisitely, they portend more than what eventually arrives. Throughout, we feel that a film so delicately written and acted must be headed toward some revelation of theme, some purpose in its design. But nothing arrives. At the last we are left with only its beauty of execution, which is very much but not enough. We haven't witnessed a drama: like Law, we have just paid a visit.
Still, The Winter Guest is a pleasure to watch, if only (but not only) for the chance to see Thompson. She is a continually revealing artist. Whenever she appears--as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing or Elinor in Sense and Sensibility or this photographer--we see a woman so completed by the performer that, through the years, Thompson becomes awesomely protean. The shadows in this recently bereaved photographer flow through Thompson's performance in constant struggle to subdue her health, as if she were paying a tribute to loss. Even such a moment as her very first scene, asleep in the morning, alone in a double bed, burrowing into pillows, marks the arrival of a perceived character.
Stanley Kauffmann is a film critic for The New Republic.
By Stanley Kauffmann