[Screen It]


(1998) (Emma Thompson, Phyllida Law) (R)

Blood/Gore Disrespectful/
Bad Attitude
Tense Scenes
*Minor Minor Mild Minor None
Mild None None None Extreme
Smoking Tense Family
Topics To
Talk About
Moderate Mild Moderate Minor None

Drama: Four sets of people explore their friendships and life in general on a cold winter day in a coastal Scottish town.
On the coldest day in memory in a coastal Scottish town, four sets of people explore their relationships and life overall. Frances (EMMA THOMPSON), a recently widowed photographer, must deal not only with her loss, but also with her doting, elderly mother, Elspeth (PHYLLIDA LAW). Frances can't stand her mother's constant criticisms, that unbeknownst to her, really veil worries that her daughter will move away. Frances' son, Alex (GARY HOLLYWOOD), also strains to deal with the loss of his father. He must also put up with the flirtatious attention paid to him by Nita (ARLENE COCKBURN), a free spirit with whom he develops an awkward romance. Meanwhile, two boys, Sam (DOUGLAS MURPHY) and Tom (SEAN BIGGERSTAFF), skip school and talk about life and growing up. On the flip side, Chloe (SANDRA VOE) and Lily (SHEILA REID), two elderly women, spend their free time attending strangers' funerals. As the four sets of people deal with their problems and the uncommonly cold weather, they learn about each other and themselves.
Unless they're fans of Thompson or "art house" films, it's highly unlikely.
For language and brief sensuality.
  • EMMA THOMPSON and PHYLLIDA LAW play a dysfunctional daughter/mother unit where Frances can't stand her mother's criticisms and is depressed in general, while Elspeth constantly dotes over and criticizes her daughter.
  • GARY HOLLYWOOD and ARLENE COCKBURN play a young, flirtatious couple who have one sensual encounter (with upper nudity).
  • DOUGLAS MURPHY and SEAN BIGGERSTAFF play two boys who skip school, smoke a little, and occasionally talk about sexual matters.
  • SHEILA REID and SANDRA VOE play two elderly women who attend strangers' funerals.


    OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
    Actors -- and I'm speaking of both genders -- are an interesting breed of person. Able to transform themselves into other characters, they're truly human chameleons. While some are good at playing completely different creations, others make a living essentially playing the same character in different roles. After years of portraying different people, however, some of these performers suddenly get the bug to direct their own feature. Whether it's ego-driven -- where they decide they can do it better than those they've worked with in the past -- or simply a means to spread one's wings artistically, there have been many fabulous success stories regarding that crossover.

    Some actors decide to go after small pictures that allow them to test the waters without fear of drowning in the abyss of commercial and critical pressure. Mel Gibson chose "The Man Without A Face" and "Tom Hanks" went with "That Thing You Do." Others, though, decide to throw all caution to the wind and tackle huge, epic productions, such as Kevin Costner with his Oscar- winning film, "Dances With Wolves." While some have continued to both act and direct (Clint Eastwood), others have pretty much given up their first career for their second (Ron Howard).

    All of which leads us to Alan Rickman. What approach he'll take to his new dual career is unknown at this point, but his freshman attempt is a decent, but ultimately flawed attempt. By now many of you might be asking, "Who's Alan Rickman?" You might not know the name, but you probably know the face and his performances. Best known for his brilliant take as the suave and sophisticated villain, Hans Gruber, in the original "Die Hard" movie, Rickman has had a decent career ranging from playing ghosts ("Truly, Madly, Deeply") to despicable leaders ("Rasputin") to romantic figures ("Sense and Sensibility"). So what directorial approach has Rickman taken after nearly a decade of acting?

    With "The Winter Guest" he's decided to go small. Clearly a character-driven story, Rickman co- wrote this feature that's based on Sharman MacDonald's stage play about friendships and self- discovery. Although we never definitely know who (or what) the "winter guest" is, symbolically it's probably the cold winter day that plot-wise is the only common bond amongst the characters. With a heavy emphasis on dialogue and none on action or special effects (other than the illusion of a frozen over sea), Rickman has created a film that will probably polarize moviegoers. Some might be mesmerized by all of the symbolism (the coldness of the weather and some of the characters for instance), while others might find it a bit heavy handed and presumptuous, or just simply boring.

    It definitely has a theatrical feel to it, and one can nearly see the "action" taking place behind the proscenium where the four sets of people occupy different parts of the stage. Taking turns weaving their stories, their setting on a cold winter's day would be easy to create theatrically. What makes Rickman's adaption interesting is that despite the inherent theatrical trappings, he's used that cold winter day nearly as another character. These performers aren't trapped on a stage, but instead go out into the winter -- through the barren landscapes and out onto the frozen sea. While it sounds like a play -- and could easily have been a very static production -- it looks and very much feels like a movie. It's a nice touch, especially from a novice director.

    What's somewhat disappointing, though, is the story itself. While the dialogue is good, the four mini-plots never really connect and many of the characters are ambiguous at best. Often we're left to our own devices to figure out who these people are, and what their stories mean, and while that sometimes works on stage, it often leads to frustration at the cinema. Obviously one can take a stab at what all of this is mean to represent -- letting go of the past, accepting changes that continue throughout life, etc... -- but you'll never be quite sure, especially with your first impression.

    The strongest part of the movie deals with the mother/daughter relationship and what makes it fly are the performances from real life mother and daughter, Phyllida Law and Emma Thompson. There's never a doubt that these two (as characters) have a long relationship together, simply because those inhabiting them already have the roles down pat. Law steals the show (and makes one think her character is the long lost sister to Debbie Reynolds from "Mother"), and creates an interestingly complex character. Four-time Oscar nominee Thompson (who won for "Howards End"), usually oozes radiance on the screen, but this time plays down her persona and delivers a troubled and depressed creation. She's certainly not fun to spend two hours with, but is always amazing to watch.

    The rest of the performances are good, but they suffer from a serious lack of character development. Probably fairing the best are Murphy and Biggerstaff as the two young boys dealing with the pangs of puberty, while the weakest are Reid and Voe as the elderly funeral crashers. While they have a few poignant as well as funny moments, we just don't know enough about them to really get into their characters. Likewise, Gary Hollywood and Arlene Cockburn have a sensuality about them, but beyond that they're enigmas to everyone. Although it's pretty obvious that the characters (other than Frances and her mom) aren't fully developed on purpose (an avant-garde theatrical device), it hurts the picture by not allowing us to really care about them.

    Still, Rickman shows that he clearly has a knack for letting the actors do their thing (despite the inherent development limitations) and certainly has a cinematic eye. Despite the constant frigid, bleak and overcast setting, the film is always easy to watch (obviously created with the help of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey). Looking at the film solely as a freshman directorial attempt, it's not that bad. As a film standing on its own, however, its ambiguity in both character and plot weaken what might have been a much better film if both had been more developed. A slow moving, dialogue driven feature, this film will probably have a limited run at the theaters before heading to the small screen. We give "The Winter Guest" a 4 out of 10.

    Only a few categories have discernible amounts of material that some viewers may find objectionable. The obvious ones include the profanity (40+ "f" words) and sex/nudity (one sensual scene with above the belt nudity, a few other brief and nonsexual bits of nudity, and a few moments where the boys talk about sexually related material). Beyond that, there's a scene where we see a boy's urine stream and the resulting puddle, and there are some instances of mother/daughter tension. The rest of the categories, however, have little or no objectionable material.

  • Elspeth briefly mentions that she needs gin in order to cry (because her tears have all dried up).
  • Elspeth has a slightly bloody scrape on her knee after she's fallen.
  • Nita's cut her foot (on broken glass) and we see it in a bowl of water that's slightly tinted red (from her blood or perhaps the coloring of the inside of the ceramic bowl).
  • Some may see Frances and her mother's attitudes toward each other as displaying both. Frances can't stand to have her mother around or listen to her, while her mother usually criticizes everything about her daughter's life.
  • Tom and Sam knock down the snowman Nita was building.
  • Although no suspenseful music accompanies it, there's a brief scene as Tom gingerly walks out across the frozen sea (and we think he may break through the ice at any moment).
  • None.
  • Phrases: "Wanker," "Balls" (testicles) and "Bloody."
  • Sam and Tom skip school for the day.
  • One of the boys tosses aside a candy bar wrapper (littering).
  • Sam talks to Tom about putting "DP" (deep heat rubbing gel) onto one's genitals to "make it bigger." He eventually convinces Tom to do so and the boy then writhes in agony from the burning sensation (we don't see any nudity).
  • None.
  • None.
  • None.
  • Due to the often thick Scottish accents, the profanity numbers may be higher than listed.
  • At least 43 "f" words, 9 "s" words, 3 slang terms for male genitals (the "d" word and "dong"), 1 crap, 1 damn, 1 hell, and 9 uses each of "For God's sakes" and "Jesus," 3 uses of "Oh my God," 2 uses of "My God," and 1 use each of "Oh God," "Christ," "For Christ's sakes" and "God" as exclamations.
  • We see brief glimpses of Frances' bare breasts in both her nightgown and when she's in the bathtub.
  • The boys find a used condom on the beach and briefly talk about it (nothing graphic).
  • Tom talks about waiting for his "balls to drop" (referring to his testicles dropping in adolescence).
  • Sam talks to Tom about putting "DP" (deep heat rubbing gel) onto one's genitals to "make it bigger." He eventually convinces Tom to do so and the boy then writhes in agony from the burning sensation (we don't see any nudity).
  • We see Nita in a bathtub, but due to the way her body's positioned, we don't see any nudity.
  • In a sensual scene, Alex and Nita kiss and we see her bare breasts several times. He then lies on top of her as they kiss, but then abruptly stops.
  • Tom briefly smokes and then takes a pack of cigarettes from Elspeth after she's dropped them.
  • Frances briefly smokes as does her mother.
  • Frances and her mother don't get along very well and Frances often avoids her or covers her ears when her mother talks (usually to criticize her daughter).
  • Something (we're never quite sure what) happened to Frances' husband (he's dead), and Alex (their son) is still disturbed by his absence.
  • Parents and their children getting along with each other (even when both are adults).
  • None.

  • Reviewed January 9, 1998

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