Marking Alan Rickman's directing debut, The Winter Guest is an almost plotless but very poignant study of life, death and relationships. Rickman had previously directed the original theatre production on which the film was based, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, UK, so he was familiar with the material and presumably knew what he wanted from the cinema version.
The course of the film is played out in a single day in a snow-bound Scottish coastal town. Apart from location filming, the only opening up of the original play occurs when Lily and Chloe travel to a nearby town by bus to get to their latest funeral. In my view this was a mistake, as the isolated town has an air of unreality and surreal detachment from the rest of the world. Knowing there is still a world beyond blurs the focus of the stories, however slightly.
The four couples represent different stages in the course of life: the two boys are beginning to wonder what the adult world has to offer them, from sex (when will they hit puberty and be able to go with girls) to employment (which doesn't seem to have given their parents any great fulfilment). They are knowing yet still relatively innocent. When Tom finds an abandoned kitten he wants to call it 'Fanny', oblivious to the sexual meaning of the word. They are eager to explore, but apprehensive of where it will lead.
Alex and Nita are more aware of what life might offer in terms of relationships, but are still working out the rules of the game. Alex is Frances's son and the death of his father casts a shadow over his life, making him hesitant to start a sexual relationhip, while Nita seems to know what she wants but is uncertain how to get it (her flirtation with Alex begins with a snowball that knocks his breakfast pie from his hand).
Lily and Chloe find solace in any funeral that is not their own, but Chloe at least comes to realise by the film's end that this is only an illusion to avoid the reality that one day Lily will be sitting alone in the crematorium while she is consigned to darkness and oblivion.
Elspeth and Frances, meanwhile, face the issues of grief, ageing and mutual responsibilities. The film opens with Elspeth marching across empty fields to reach her daughter's house where she begins cleaning and tidying as if Frances was still a child. She reminisces about golden holidays in the past, and Frances brings her back down to earth reminding Elspeth that her swimsuit gave her a rash and the guest-house food made her sick all over the floor. Mourning her husband, wanting to be left alone in her grief, Frances cries: “I don't need you!”, devastating words for any parent. Elspeth meanwhile seems to be suffering from periods of mental vagueness and an uncontrollable shaking in her right hand. The first words of the film come from Lily who, seeing Elspeth, mutters: “Not long for this world.” Frances and Elspeth are therefore having to face mortality in the past and future. In the present they have to reach some form of stability in their relationship as mother and daughter.
The four stories coincide to some extent (Elspeth and Frances meet the boys on the beach) but mostly run in parallel. The film never really comes to a conclusion or climax. What we are given is a slice of life, where – as in life itself – things are adjusted to and accommodated, but remain fluid and open to interpretation. The biggest question mark hangs over the two boys who walk out on the frozen sea and disappear into a fog. Will they die out there? Or is it merely a symbol of their venturing out into life?
The film is very effective visually. The snowy town and Frances's unheated house (I was sure Emma Thompson would catch pneumonia after her bath) are well conveyed and Seamus McGarvey's cinematography has moments of real beauty. One scene in particular, between Nita and Alex, is lit and coloured like a Caravaggio painting.
All the performances are good, with Law and Thompson in particular bringing real energy and passion to their work. As mother and daughter they obviously have first-hand knowledge of this relationship, and apply their knowledge to some very highly-charged acting.
The Winter Guest is not the most action-packed 100 minutes in cinema, but it is deeply felt by the cast, thought-provoking, and can be viewed many times to pick up different strands of emotion and meaning.