Alan Rickman—The Winter Guest

British actor Alan Rickman
died on January 14, 2016, at the much too early age of 69. Beginning his career in 1978, Rickman appeared in over 60 films on TV and cinema. Well known and loved as a character actor, he played a variety of roles, from romantic period pieces to dramas and comedies to Professor Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series. But he was probably best known to filmgoers as a complex, often villainous antagonist, perhaps most famously as the German terrorist, Hans Gruber, leading his band of thieves in a lucrative heist in the 1988 thriller Die Hard.

Rickman was lesser known as a director, who in 1997 made his directorial debut with The Winter Guest, a haunting tale set in wintertime Scotland.

The actors with top billing in this beautiful film are Emma Thompson and her real-life mother, Phyllida Law, who, in the movie, plays Elspeth, the mother of Thompson’s character Frances. The story is played out during the course of a bleak winter day in a seaside Scottish village, with the raw chill of the season and the Scottish landscape playing an integral part of the movie. Watching, you are always aware of the ever-present gray skies and frozen sea and the palpable grimness of this wintry coastal village.

Frances, a photographer who is recently widowed, longs to escape her memories and dreary life by moving to Australia with her teenage son, Alex. Frances’s elderly mother, Elspeth, is against the move, and her arrival on the scene brings to a boil an apparent long-simmering tension between the two. Their complex relationship is highlighted throughout, but their story is also woven against the stories of three other pairs of villagers, as the movie switches back and forth between the fractious byplay of the mother and daughter and the dramas of the others.

Alex, Frances’s teenage son, has his own story, beginning with being spied upon and pursued by the bold Nita, a girl around his same age. As a way of introducing herself, she hits him with a snowball outside the pastry shop, causing him to spill his takeout breakfast on the ground. Angry at first, and put off by her brazen aggressiveness, he eventually warms to her advances, which leads to an overtly sexual scene.

The movie switches to Chloe and Lily, two old women whose shared lives include the odd attraction of attending stranger’s funerals, to which they travel by bus, comparing notes on funerals past. They are apparently lifelong friends, now with nothing to bind them together but a tolerance for each other and the shared experience of mourning.

The final piece is that of Tom and Sam, two schoolboys of twelve or thirteen, who we first see walking along a deserted beach next to the frozen sea. They have skipped school to spend the day playing, but as they walk along, with the quiet of the town on one side of them and the icy ocean on the other, their talk turns to more than boyhood thoughts, taking on a serious tone into concerns beyond just being carefree boys.

The fact that the four separate tales are juxtaposed the way they are makes it seem that they must have something in common. But it is not immediately apparent what that is, and in fact it is never overtly revealed. There is no interaction between the four pairs, other than a brief encounter between Francis and the girl, Nita, when Alex brings her home, and the mother and girl meet, assessing one another.

And as the four stories separately unfold, the question might arise in the mind of the viewer of who, exactly, is the winter guest of the title. On the face of it, it is the mother, Elspeth, who comes visiting during one of Frances’s spells of gloom over her situation of widowhood and her sparse life in this constricted Scottish village. Frances longs for a new start in Australia, but in pops Elspeth to throw cold water on the idea, on top of which, it becomes clear, Frances suffers pangs of guilt over the prospect of leaving her aging mother behind.

But the winter guest, it seems, is more than just the mother uncomfortably imposing her presence into the life of her daughter. Perhaps it is death, represented by the grim surroundings of this wintry place and the four stages of life acted out in the paired stories of the four couples. The question is never answered, and, so it seems, it is never intended to be. What we are given then, in the small slices of life of these people, are the universal feelings of loneliness, of longing for someone or something to give rescue, of wonder at life’s mysteries, and of loss over the passing years and what could have been. The Winter Guest is the kind of film that can be viewed multiple times, each viewing revealing a fresh take into the angst of the human condition. Ultimately, Alan Rickman’s direction of the film shows subtle insight into the thoughts and yearnings of these people, and he gives the viewer the feel of knowing what life would be like in this isolated piece of Scotland.


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