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Alan Rickman’s glacial adaptation of Sharman Macdonald’s play The Winter Guest is quite artisticall winter whites inside and out, long pauses and gestural lingerings, frozen souls athaw left and right.
But none of this is artistic enough, despite its geniality and basic goodwill, to disguise the script’s elemental predictability. Serious-actors-turned-directors tend not to make their behind-the-camera debuts with disaster flicks or soft-porn loops, and Winter Guest’s high-concept casting tips Rickman’s hand: Emma Thompson plays Frances, a photographer with a closed-down heart for whose health everyone mysteriously fears; Frances’ mother, Elspeth, a bitter old beauty in a full fur coat, is played by Thompson’s own mother, Phyllida Law.
The camera follows various couples on a day of their adventures in a bleak Scottish seaside town. Frances’ son, Alex (Gary Hollywood), leaves for school but is startled out of his breakfast by Nita (Arlene Cockburn), the sullen teenager who has a crush on him. Two thoughtful young schoolboys, Tom (Sean Biggerstaff) and Sam (Douglas Murphy), also stray, ending up on the frozen beach where they skip stones, build a fire, care for kittens, and worry articulately over their sexual and economic futures.
Lily and Chloe (Sheila Reid and Sandra Voe) provide ironic counterpoint to the vivid struggles of the youngdespite their arch, pretty names, they’re two poisonous old pigeons who gloat over obituaries and gripe about the cold. Meanwhile, Frances is surprised out of her self-pitying stupor by a visit from Mother, who starts annoying her daughter immediately with a litany of bad-natured disapprovalFrances’ hacked-off hair, her artsy angled photographs, the unheated house. Although a grown woman, Frances reacts to her mother’s carping with infantile protests: covering her ears, sinking underneath the bathwater, turning on the tap.
Obviously, it means a great deal to each of the participants in the battle they both cherish not to concede any need for each other, but it isn’t clear why. Both Frances and Elspeth make bellowing claims for their independence, but the most myopic onlooker can see that Elspeth’s advanced state of lonelinessa product of her age and fiercenessmirrors that of her daughter, who is haunted by her husband’s death. Pictures of him, of course, are all over the house. Frances and Alex won’t be free until these are turned over and/or shattered.
They are, and in a none too surprising manner. Nita lets Alex chase her until she catches him, as the snide old saying goes, and they grapple a bit in front of the fireplaceshe draped in a kind of large silken shawl from Frances’ studiountil Alex leaps off her, tormented by Dad’s stern 8-by-10. Sensible Nita turns the photos to the wall, but after a less romantic clench, the two of them drop a big glass-encased close-up and, presumably, break whatever spell Dad’s glaring presence has over Alex.
The Winter Guest shows its stage roots at such moments, and there are many of them. Frances yells at Elspeth to slow down in her determined march across the icy landscape, whereupon the old woman obligingly slips. Lily and Chloe pick apart the niceties of a juicy funeral, after which one of them gets a presage of her own demise, and their friendship proves stronger even than their fear of death. Tom complains about his boy-size manhood, but Sam just happens to have a tube of Deep Heat in his backpack, which he’s heard will make it grow. Later, the lads find two half-frozen kittens, and their talk turns from manhood to motherhood.
The Winter Guest is slow and stately, but there’s nothing forbidding or pretentious about Rickman’s leisurely staring at his small cast’s interesting faces or the grudging beauty of the midwinter landscape. The story is virtually actionlessit gets the job done with a lot of sophisticated (and mostly believable) talk and long stretches of patient silence, filled in by Michael Kamen’s chilly piano music. It’s a cool, sprawling movie with an old-fashioned, very British, purpose: to show how much people still need each other after the fierceness of youth has waned and the love and battles have lost their heat. For some of these characters, who have little else, mere proximity is sometimes enough.
Howie Long is an amiable enough guy when he’s doing that football-commentary thing; the much-decorated defensive lineman for the Los Angeles Raiders found an ideal post-gridiron career making merry with his fellow ex-hulks on TV. It always did seem that his shining teeth and overchiseled lug facehe looks like the result of a Martian attempt to build the perfect human; there’s something indefinably wrong about his bone structurewere destined for more than shuffling papers and arguing with Ronnie Lott.
So Long has signed a three-picture deal with Twentieth Century Fox, the motion picture company that is like a Bullwinkle without a Rocky to sigh, “That trick never works.” As long as you keep your expectations low and your explosives bill high, it works OK. Firestorm is not the worst thing that could have happened to Long. As “smokejumper” Jesse Graves, Long plays a big man of action who isn’t given to speeches, just some shoulder-punching words of mutual cheer that would not be out of place in a locker room. Jesse and his crewthey’re the glamorous firemen who parachute into forest blazes where the “ground-pounders” can’t goare called in to fight a fire up near the Canadian border. Some nearby convicts have been brought in to help, but their participationas well as the fireis a ruse to allow the escape of psycho mastermind Shaye (William Forsythe), who stashed millions of dollars before getting caught. There’s also a female ornithologist (skull-faced Suzy Amis) too busy birdwatching to notice either the raging forest fire or the band of escaped prisoners.
The plot’s not easy to follow, but there are so many flames and so many idling propane tanks, fuel tanks, abandoned cars, and other combustible stuff that it doesn’t really matter that you can’t keep track of who’s in on what and that you’re watching Forsythe squint and smirk his way through a performance that makes Long look like John Barrymore. (Actually, Howie isn’t measurably worse than Pam Grier in Jackie Brown; he just doesn’t have the sentimental vote behind him and he doesn’t look as hot in a red sundress and slingbacksa sight that Firestorm, with admirable restraint, does not subject you to.)
It doesn’t even matter that one character, cursed with poor diction, frets that “we’ll be shittin’ ducks out there.” (Now that’s scared!) Those football guys, whose careers make them so alien to other professionals and so out of time compared with other, better rounded humans, have learned to cultivate a pretty disarming sense of humor about themselves. I’d even sit through Terry Bradshaw in Candide, if I had to. CP