Director Michael Winterbottom
Starring Colin Firth, Catherine Keener, Hope Davis, Willa Holland, Perley Hanley-Jardine
2008 Cert 15 90 mins
From documentary to soft porn, it’s always interesting to see what Michael Winterbottom has in next in store. GENOVA is no exception especially as it stars Colin Firth as Joe, a middle class English daddy who takes his kids to Italy to recover from the tragic death of their mother in a car accident.
Taking the opportunity to teach at the University, he settles the family into a flat in the old part of town and meets up with Barbara (Catherine Keener) a friend from his days at Harvard. They settle into a routine of classes in the morning and beach in the afternoon. Pubescent Kelly (Willa Holland) discovers Italian boys. Mary (Perla Haney-Jardine) is more sensitive and youngest is Perla Haney-Jardine doesn’t cope at all. The way she really misses her mother is poignantly observed.
Right from the beginning there’s the uneasy feeling that this is no ordinary drama. It’s very much a ‘ghost’ story in the modern sense. But why Genova? The old town is just the place for this creepy tale. A hand-held camera pans the narrow medieval streets as shadowy figures loom out of the darkness and give a whiff of menace that’s reminiscent of ‘Don’t Look Now’. Prostitutes haunt the shady courtyards of the Port and birds fly out of dilapidated buildings in scenes that would be difficult to come by in a modern city such as Chicago, the family’s US home.
One minute Kelly’s disappearing on the beach or zipping precariously through the streets on the back of her boyfriend’s dodgy moped, the next Mary has gone missing in a Church causing a frantic search. And all the time Colin Firth is holding things together with that nagging expression of impending doom he does so well.
Despite Marcel Zyskind’s glossy location shots, this is very much a tale of bereavement and individual reactions to it. Mary has a wild imagination and as the youngest is most candid in her expression of sadness. It’s a very natural performance from Hannah Perley Jardine as a little girl who really misses her mother. Her nightmares start to feature Hope Davis in cameo role as her mother. Kelly resents her younger sister and as a teenager, is trying to appear cool.
But ultimately this is Colin Firth’s film. He is superb as a respectable 40-something guy who’s keeping things together for his children. Continually on the verge of tears he is by turns incredibly tender and caustically abrupt; and this is the refreshing part. His performance is so subtle, so English: there is no embarrassing breakdown – just a dignified portrayal of a man who’s making a very brave attempt to carry on and succeeding despite the interference of a friend and a nubile student. Both are desperate to get it on with him but end up just getting in the way.
Michael Winterbottom has given us realistic sex in Nine Lives. This is realistic grief and is both unsentimental yet utterly moving.
Meredith Taylor ©