Director Michael Winterbottom Writers: Laurence Coriat/Michael Winterbottam
Starring Colin Firth, Catherine Keener, Hope Davis, Willa Holland, Perla Haney-Jardine
94 mins UK Mystery/Drama
From documentary to porn, it’s always interesting to see what Michael Winterbottom has 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 back in America.
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. A gentle routine develops: classes in the morning, beach in the afternoon. Pubescent Kelly (Willa Holland) discovers Italian boys. Mary, (Perla Haney-Jardine) the younger one, is sensitive and introspective and doesn’t cope at all. She really misses her mother in poignantly observed scenes.
From the outset there an uneasy feeling that this is no ordinary drama. Very much a ‘ghost’ story in the modern sense. But why Genova? The old town is just the place for this sinister 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 Roeg’s: 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 more modern city such as Chicago, the family’s US home.
One minute Kelly is 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. This is a narrative about a family falling apart, dislocated in time and space: the onslaught is geographical and personal.
Marcel Zyskind’s atmospheric location shots echo the wistful sadness of this tale of bereavement and individual reactions to it. Mary has a wild imagination and is the most candid in her expression of sadness. Her vivid nightmares start to feature her mother Marianne (Hope Davis). Kelly resents her younger sister’s angst and tries to appear cool, playing out in her waywardness, nevertheless.
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 subtle yet accessible, 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 his friend (Catherine Keener) and of a nubile student, Rosa (Margherita Romeo). Both are desperate to ‘get it on’ with Joe, but end up just getting in the way.
Michael Winterbottom has given us realistic sex in 9 Songs: This is realistic grief and feels unsentimental yet utterly moving. MT