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[whitespace] The Winter Guest
Clive Coote

The Parent Trap: Phyllida Law (left), real mother to Emma Thompson (right), plays her fictional mom in 'The Winter Guest.'

First-time director Alan Rickman opens up a stagy story of mother-daughter feuding

By Richard von Busack

AS THE MOST popular screen representative of Perfidious Albion, Alan Rickman--who makes his directing debut with The Winter Guest--has earned a good living with his snide British accent. Some of his memorable appearances include his dashing terrorist in Die Hard and his Sheriff of Nottingham in Kevin Costner's awful Robin Hood. Rickman even assayed a pleasantly intimidating Captain Hook in a stage scene in the mingy import An Awfully Big Adventure. All of these rogues overshadowed Rickman's qualities as a serious actor; see the superb 1991 Truly Madly Deeply, directed by Anthony Mingella of The English Patient, in which Rickman played a dead lover's ghost who outstayed its welcome.

One doesn't expect an actor's first movie as director to be especially good-looking, but Rickman hired a fine photographer, Seamus McGarvey, whose images of the Scottish coast during a freeze are extremely handsome. The almost abstract aerial scenery of sand, stone and ice looks like artist Nathan Olivera's table-top landscapes. That such care was taken with the visuals is more helpful, since the play, first directed by Rickman on the London stage in 1995, is very standard. It's a feuding mother-and-daughter piece given extra poignancy by the roles being played by a real-life mother and daughter, Phyllida Law and Emma Thompson.

Sharman Macdonald's play is a wispy piece about a Scottish coastal town on a day so cold that the sea has frozen; naturally, this signifies human ice to be thawed as well. Frances (Thompson) has lost her mate and refuses to face up to her chipper mother (Law), who has barged into her house; meanwhile, her son, Alex (Gary Hollywood), also dealing with the pain of loss and his mother's remoteness, is picked up by Nita (Arlene Cockburn), a local tomboy who has nursed a long-time crush on him. Two old women (Sheila Reid and Sandra Woe) who are almost semipro funeral critics take a trip out of town to attend a burial; they're matched by a pair of school kids who are playing hooky by the seashore.

Cockburn, as Nita, is the most fascinating member of the octet. Her character reminds you of similarly urgent but furtive, slightly goofy women Liza Minnelli played when she was a young actress. But the conflict between Thompson and Law is too much in the tradition of the sort of theater where one character has a secret and the other worms it out at long last, after much spatting between them. Plays based on the message that people should get over their grief and live again are, I think, more fun for actors than they are for audiences. Still, Thompson is in a fine glower over her mother's needling. The sight of those marvelous eyes, their fire banked by mourning (mourning becomes Thompson), may be enough for her fans.

The Winter Guest (R; 110 min.), directed by Alan Rickman, written by Sharman Macdonald and Rickman, photographed by Seamus McGarvey and starring Phyllida Law and Emma Thompson.

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From the February 26-March 4, 1998 issue of Metro.

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