THE WINTER GUEST was a play written by Sharman Macdonald commissioned by actor Alan Rickman (you know. . .the bad guy in DIE HARD, Professor Snape in the Harry Potter movies, the dead guy in TRULY MADLY DEEPLY...). Rickman makes his directorial debut with this film and shows a surprisingly deft and subtle touch. The film concerns (basically) four sets of people (although they do interact with one another). First we have Frances (Emma Thompson) who is wallowing in grief over the death of her husband. We find her living in an unnamed, remote Scottish village on a day when the ocean has frozen solid. Frances is visited by her rather domineering mother (Emma's real-life mother Phyllida Law) who persuades her to grab her camera (Frances is a professional photographer) and spend the day with her walking on the frozen beach. The second pair in the film is Frances' teenaged son Alex (Gary Hollywood) and a local girl Nita (Arlene Cockburn) who has had her eye on Alex for quite some time. After several rounds of flirtations, Alex invites her back to the now-empty house while his mother and grandmother are out. The third pair are two old ladies Lily and Chloe (Sheila Reid and Sandra Voe) who spend their spare time going to funerals. The final pair are two young boys Tom (Sean Biggerstaff of the Harry Potter movies) and Sam (Douglas Murphy) who skip school to hang around the frozen beach.
The Phyllida Law/Emma Thompson scenes are mostly concerned with the daughter's dealing with her grief and the aging mother's failing faculties and fear that Frances is planning to move to Australia and leave her alone. The two old women focus mostly on gossip and funerals. The scenes with Alex and Nita naturally focus on adolescent curiosity about sex and the mystery of the opposite sex. The two young boys conversations revolve around the tribulations of childhood, the incomprehensibility of sex, the cruelty and seeming stupidity of adults . . . and quite the dangers of "Deep Heat". Law and Thompson are flawless but the two young boys match them and almost steal the movie. It's particularly nice when the final third of the film has Law and Thompson coming upon the boys on the beach.
THE WINTER GUEST is more interesting than the biggest Hollywood action flick simply because the emotions we see in the film are so real and grippingly familiar to us all. There isn't a cloying, soppy moment in the film; the characters are depicted realistically without any rose-tinted drivel. The film ends on a strangely triumphant moment (and I'm not exactly sure WHY it feels this way to me) as Tom (and his recently found kitten) walk out onto the frozen sea and disappear into the fog. It's a magical moment. The photography by DP Seamus McGarvey (ATONEMENT and HIGH FIDELITY) captures the breathtakingly beautiful desolation of wintery Scotland. For a film that was once a stage play, THE WINTER GUEST is anything but static and stagey. We are constantly moving to location after location: from the house to the streets to the endless beaches to the highways to a restaurant and church -- the scenery is constantly changing and the film never looks like a filmed play. THE WINTER GUEST is quite moving to me and provides a beam of light into the darkest winter. I can readily identify with quite a few of the emotions on display in the film. There also seems to be some question of exactly what "the winter guest" is: the easy answer is usually "Death". However, I don't really think so. Death is a part of the script but not, I think, the most important part. So, what or who IS the winter guest? Well, even director Alan Rickman doesn't seem to know (when he is asked during an interview in the DVD's special features). So, my answer as to what the winter guest is? It's a damn fine film, that's what.