For his directorial debut, it's fitting that Alan Rickman (Die Hard, Sense And Sensibility), the superb character actor of stage and screen, would take on what's essentially a filmed play. Set in a nameless Scottish coastal village that seems to rest right at the edge of Earth, The Winter Guest cuts among four pairs of characters on the coldest day of the year. Their ages span five generations: A recently widowed photographer (Emma Thompson) bickers with her stubborn mother (Phyllida Law, Thompson's real-life mother) on a long trek across the frozen landscape, her teenage son (Gary Hollywood) has a romantic encounter with a girl he meets at the bus stop, two mischievous young boys (Douglas Murphy and Sean Biggerstaff) skip school to hang out by the sea, and, as comic relief, two older women (Sheila Reid and Sandra Voe) shuttle off to the funeral of a stranger. With his stunning backdrop already in place, Rickman wisely keeps the staging simple and plays to his obvious strength: working with other actors. Thompson and Law, who appeared together for only a few precious minutes in the otherwise insufferable Peter's Friends, zero in on each other's raw nerves and emotions with a natural ease that could only come from a lifetime of love and resentment. In a setting where the grim specter of death hovers over the action, the warmth and good humor of the cast keeps you from cringing at the significance of it all. If The Winter Guest finally succumbs to sentiment toward the end, the haunting final shot more than acquits it.
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