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The Winter Guest
The Winter Guest
Actors: Emma Thompson, Phyllida Law, Douglas Murphy, Sheila Reid, Tom Watson
Director: Alan Rickman
Genres: Indie & Art House, Drama
R     2005     1hr 48min

In this astonishingly beautiful drama, recently widowed photographer Frances (Academy Award(c) winner Emma Thompson) lives with her increasingly distant son and finds her life radically changed with the arrival of her moth...  more »


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Movie Details

Actors: Emma Thompson, Phyllida Law, Douglas Murphy, Sheila Reid, Tom Watson
Director: Alan Rickman
Genres: Indie & Art House, Drama
Sub-Genres: Indie & Art House, Family Life
Studio: Image Entertainment
Format: DVD - Color,Widescreen
DVD Release Date: 08/30/2005
Original Release Date: 12/24/1997
Theatrical Release Date: 12/24/1997
Release Year: 2005
Run Time: 1hr 48min
Screens: Color,Widescreen
Number of Discs: 1
SwapaDVD Credits: 1
Total Copies: 0
Members Wishing: 26
MPAA Rating: R (Restricted)
Languages: English

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Movie Reviews

An extraordinary debut by director Alan Rickman--gorgeous, b
Tracy Hodson | Middle of Nowhere, OR United States | 09/01/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)

""The Winter Guest" is Alan Rickman's first film as a director, and what a film it is. Having directed it first in the West End, he makes the transition to film with remarkable ease.

Masterfully acted by his dear friends Emma Thompson and her real-life mum, Phyllida Law as the titular "Guest" (the literal guest--the metaphorical "guest" is the unknown/death/the next stage of growth). She's a rather unwelcome visitor to her grieving daughter's home--having just lost her husband to death she just wants to be left alone. Rickman does something which is becoming rarer and rarer amongst directors: he reveals the characters rather than trying to dazzle us with "aren't I a genius first-time-director" trickery designed to call attention to him, rather than to his story. He does this by using simple, quiet but absolutely exquisite cinematography (by Seamus McGarvey) to capture the wild beauty of the far north of Scotland in the dead of a harsh but beautiful winter, creating almost moonscapes; he allows his actors to work within long takes so that they can fully immerse themselves in their scenes; he artfully intercuts between characters' gestures so as to create a psychological connection that is subtle but significant and is seen first as the approaching Elspeth [Law] slips and grabs a metal handrail, then he cuts to Frances [Thompson] grabbing her metal bed frame as she turns sleeping--this is a Nicolas Roeg technique which serves to wordlessly communicate the connection between the two and is a great example of the uniqueness of the language of cinema, and of how a full grasp of that language deepens a film immeasurably--and very importantly, like the great German director Werner Herzog, he is unafraid of silence and allows it to take us into the center of the film. The simple and non-intrusive score is by the late, great Michael Kamen (who is sorely missed), and is mostly comprised of "incidental" music--songs occuring naturally as someone plays the piano or sings a traditional song. This has the effect of creating atmosphere and the sense that this is life, not a movie. That a first time director should have been able to do all of this without fear of being "unfashionably" non-showy is quite remarkable; from the first frame it was clear that he has it in him to become a director of note, should he choose to follow that path. That two such great British actresses trusted him fully was a great vote of confidence (Law had played this role in The West End play which preceded the film, as several of the other actors involved in the film had, as well).

Adapted by Rickman and Sharman MacDonald from her play, which Rickman was involved in from the start, the story is actually comprised of four inter-woven stories, four pairs of people, each of whom are in the midst of some sort of existential struggle (do not mistake this for pretension); the action takes place all in one day, during which all of the characters have come to some sort of internal crisis; the film is about the negotiating each of them do through these deep changes, all of which touch on death in one way or another. All good stories are about just that--the moments when someone is forced to turn, to make choices, to move through a difficulty with grace, making space for the needs of others without relinquishing one's own needs. This is big content to manage within a single day, but Rickman intercuts between these four conflicted pairs seamlessly, giving each of them his full attention. The day itself is remarkable--so cold is it that everything is covered deep in snow and the sea has actually frozen, a rare occurrence.

The main pair is mother Elspeth and daughter Frances. Frances is buried so deep in isolated mourning for her dead husband that her mother fears for both her and for her grandson. Apparently the marriage between Frances and her husband was so intense that it nearly excluded the son in the first place, which Elspeth is still distressed about. Frances, a professional photographer, photographed the stages of her husband's deterioration, and her home is filled with images of him in varying degrees of health and increasing illness. He haunts the house, his widow, his son, the film. Elspeth feels that by photographing this protracted death, Frances has also disappeared into a form of living death, and so she tries to take Frances out of herself by coaxing her to join her in a long walk with her camera in hand.

As irritating as Frances finds her mother's intrusion into her solitude, she also worries about her increasing weakness as she moves farther into old age. This irritation is expressed one minute when Frances covers her ears as Elspeth relates a long story, her concern revealed a few moments later when her mother's sudden silence sparks concern, and the turning off all the faucets and listening intently, calling anxiously for her mother until she begins to speak again. They bicker--both are witty, funny, acidic, and able to hit bulls-eye's every time they take aim, then share deeply loving moments, and later, as they walk together, Frances begins to see her mother as an individual, rather than the irritating fuss-budget she usually reduces her to. (An aside--this is the moment all mothers await--the dawning upon their daughters that they are not just "Mother" but an actual, whole person who exists in 3-d and is as complex and worthy of respect as her daughter is, and finally gets that respect from her daughter--many stories are about this subject alone so lost is the notion of respect for one's mother--and many mothers both in stories and in life wait a long time for this pivotal, life-changing moment.) It is wonderful to see that process unfold here. The issues of being needed and of needing are addressed directly, and it seems as though Elspeth has wanted to talk about the subject for some time, but has felt unable to do so because of Frances' emotional and physical distance (she and her son have been in Australia on extended holiday after her husband's death, and Elspeth has been afraid they'd not return). According to the interview on the DVD, Rickman commissioned the project when he was at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre with the great actress Lindsay Duncan, whose mother was at that time suffering from the stage of Alzheimer's when one is both amusing and exasperating, and so he asked Lindsay and Sharman to talk and then Sharman wrote the play. We see in the film that combination of love and frustration between the mother and daughter, and how each has to make room for the changes in the relationship that occur when the mother begins to need the daughter, and the daughter has to come to terms with both that and her own need--however annoying it may be, one never quite stops needing one's mother.

The second pair is Frances' son Alex (Gary Hollywood), and Nita (Arlene Cockburn), a neighborhood girl who has had an eye on him and who chooses today to take a shot at flirtation. She is a strong, self-sufficient young woman whose boyish looks have made her unsure of her femininity and subsequently rather belligerent in compensation. It is this combination of power and hidden vulnerability that draws Alex to her. From the house, Elspeth watches them through a telescope, looks into the girl's eager, open face and says, "You be careful, Alex--it wants, that face--give her the moon, she'd want the stars as well..." She then goes on to admit to herself that she always "wanted" and "wants" still, dispelling the myth that with age comes a sort of numbness to such normal things as desire. Alex, who is worried terribly about his mother and haunted by his father's death, is not at first very receptive to Nita's attempts at contact, but eventually succumbs to her teasing and flirting, and finally brings the girl home to the unexpectedly abandoned house. A poorly-timed confrontation with yet another photograph of his father breaks him down, and he is able to reveal the depth of his emotional turmoil, and for all Nita's previous indications of selfishness, she is able to receive and hold it, and some sort of healing begins for him.

The third pair, an elderly couple of women--Lily and Chloe (played respectively by Sheila Reid and Sandra Voe)--who seem to have outlived all their friends and neighbors, spend their time in going to funerals, making a day's outing of each one, complete with tea and cakes. It's not possible to describe here how their experience plays out with such depth and significance, but that it does is an example of how Alan Rickman has brought even this subtle piece of the story fully to life, making these women real and powerfully empathetic. When Chloe's crisis comes, we feel the strength of Lily's support and are moved.

Our final pair is two young boys who have skipped school for the day. Sam (Douglas Murphy) and his best friend Tom (Sean Biggerstaff, later of the Harry Potter movies) are at that fragile age when boys are on the brink of manhood and struggling to understand who they are and how they fit. They are sweet and tender (a moment shared between Tom and the newly shorn Frances, when he asks to touch her short, prickly hair, is so filled with emotion it moves the hard-shelled Frances to tears), obnoxious and argumentative--all the things boys at about 12 are. They are concerned with the problems of burgeoning sexuality, relationships with family members, their futures, and then, unexpectedly, with the lives of a couple of tiny, abandoned kittens whom they rescue and care for lovingly as they sit on the frozen shore, staring out onto the frozen sea. The above mentioned encounter between Frances and her mother and the momentariliy alone Tom is a wonderful one which reveals much about all three characters. All of the duos bump into one another at one time or another, some briefly, some with greater impact, but this one most of all. It is impossible not to love these boys who,in that moment between boyhood and manhood, are as frozen as is the sea, and we want to hold them there, as safely as they hold their kittens, and not let them go into the uncertain future.

It is not an accident that this day of days is one on which even the salt sea has freezed up. "Once before I've seen the sea frozen, just the once, long, long ago," says Chloe to her friend, Lily. "What a day that was." I, too, spent a day with my sister long ago on the coast of New England when the sea had frozen, and indeed, what a day that was. There's something that stuns one when this always-moving, ever-changing, rising and falling tidal body of water suddenly becomes solid and fixed in time and space. The day feels incredibly significant, even if nothing in particular is happening, because normal laws of nature seem suspended--everything is heightened and magical. I still remember every moment of that day with my sister on the beach, speaking in hushed and awed voices, and that memory deepens my own understanding of why the writer made this story occur on such a day. The sea's stasis mirrors that of the psyches of each of the characters in the story, all of whom are frozen in some moment they cannot seem to get past. That they each have made some real movement by the end of the film is very much the point--this frozen day creates quiet crises in each character which they must overcome, and the writer helps them through this process by pairing each one up. They're helped through their frozen states into some beginning of action towards their futures by one another. But the future is misty, impossible to know; it requires walking with trust into the unknown, and Rickman illustrates this beautifully at the end in a way which I will not give away here. The introspective, contemplative mood is maintained throughout the final titles, which I would recommend sitting through in order to hear the beautiful voice of Elizabeth Fraser (Cocteau Twins) singing "Take me With You."

"The Winter Guest" is that rare thing--a beautiful, quiet, understated film that moves you, makes you feel both the joy and sadness that comes with being human, and most of all offers the great gifts of faith in friendship, trust, and in the power of love to transform life even when life is hard, when you're stuck in your own personal mess with no visible way out, and need another to take your arm, hold you up and see you through, and are wise enough to realize it. I cannot recommend it enough.

Emotionally moving film set in a near fairy-tale landscape
(5 out of 5 stars)

"The second best thing about this film is its lyrical and lovely musical score, with some fine folk songs added in to the mix. The scenery of the frozen Scottish landscape and the quaint town in which the story is staged is beautiful; but it is Thompson's and Law's performances as a typical loving-battling, wanting-to-escape-each-other, forever-bound-together mother and daughter that are stunning. The mother's persistence against all odds is shown from the start, as she walks a harrowing route to her daughter's home, there to ply Thompson from the bathroom where she is hiding from her mother. The bickering begins, with lots of interaction that shows the ordinary tensions between mothers and daughters, but it brings about a catharsis for Thompson's character, who is a widow grieving for a lost husband. Following these two through the few hours of their day together is enthralling. If you are a woman, you are bound to recognize your mother or daughter in this relationship -- it is that typical and that honest. And men can certainly gain insight into women's relationships from this film.But Thompson's and Law's isn't the only story. Comic and ironic relief is brought by pairs of other characters. Two are elderly women of long acquaintance, who visit a funeral and have some adventures and self-revelations along the way. Another pair are two boys who skip school and hang about the seashore, doing what boys often do and saying what boys often say, in some very humorous and ultimately profound scenes. Then there is a romance, as Thompson's adolescent son is pursued by a rather aggressive young lady in a manner that causes you to wonder if they will make love or end up hating each other. I hesitated to see this film because I thought I would not be able to understand much of the dialog since the actor's accents were advertised as being heavily Scottish. Actually, there were only a few phrases that I couldn't pick out. Otherwise it was easily understandable. The film held my interest, and I found it to be entertaining as well as insightful. Bravo to Rickman for a fine job directing and pulling together the character's adventures. Some charming scenes tie up the threads of each pair's story rather nicely, but the ending is the sort that hints to you that the film itself will haunt you, or so I have found. Maybe it's the soundtrack (available on CD), perhaps it's the frozen and rough landscape, or it might be the characters which seem so familiar, since they could be any of us, but this film sticks in my memory as meaningful and emotionally evocative. If you like modern American film, with violence, special effects, phenomenally loud noises, etc., I don't believe you would be attracted to the Winter Guest. But if you are interested in film-making as an art, a social comment, and a depicition of our awesome lives, you may want to view this film. It really is excellent."
A work of visual beauty....
Dianne Foster | USA | 08/19/2000
(5 out of 5 stars)

"The setting for "The Winter Guest" (based on the stage play) is a small fishing village in Scotland where the sea is frozen as far as the eye can see. Frances (Emma Thompson) is a professional photographer mired in grief over the recent death of her husband. She cannot make herself climb out of bed -- even for her son. Photographs Frances took of her deceased husband line the walls and run up the stairs. At one point during the film her son tells a friend their house is haunted and his dead father has imprisoned his mother. One cold winter day, Frances' mother Elspeth (Phyllida Law--Emma's real mother) comes calling -- she is the 'winter guest.' She encourages Frances to start living again. At Elspeth's urging, she and Frances spend the day together walking and talking in the frozen landscape -- Frances with her camera in hand and Elspeth with her cigarettes. At the end of the walk, Frances seems a bit less grieved and the frozen space between the mother and daughter has thawed. Three subplots have been worked into the main tale: two small boys playing hooky; Frances' son meeting a new girl; and two older ladies taking the #22 bus to an out of town funeral. Alan Rickman dircted this masterpiece of stunning visual beauty. The film consists of shot after shot of black and white photographs suitable for framing. Some color is provided by the occasional jumper (sweater) or other inanimate object, but mostly this is a black and white film. If you're fascinated with photograpy and/or cinematography, you will enjoy this film. The musical score is lovely and quite appropriate for the setting (piano solos by Michael Kamen with a female vocal during the final credits).The photography reminds me a bit of the footage from "The Sweet Hereafter" though most of it is very original. The story line is reminiscent of "Truly, Madly, Deeply" which starred Rickman. This is a thoughtful film. My husband has watched it twice, so I don't think it appeals only to women."
Tracy Hodson | 04/05/1999
(5 out of 5 stars)

"This is a sapphire of a film, a shimmering vision of loneliness and longing. Emma Thompson makes you feel the ice-dagger of heartache, Phyllida Law makes you feel the wrenching fear of abandonment. The film is subdued, but it can be no other way. We are voyeurs, guests of their pain swept in upon the chill of the film's wintry winds, and swept out to sea as befits those who encounter such desolation. A marvelous work of restraint and atmospheric elegance. Five Big Stars!"