Apr 3, 2009

Genova [15]

Dir: Michael Winterbottom
British Director Michael Winterbottom has, over the course of 14 years and a staggering 16 feature films (well, more now, since Genova he’s finished co-directing a documentary and started his next fiction film), done pretty well everything. Lesbian road movie? See Butterfly Kiss. Thomas Hardy based Western? That’ll be The Claim. Pop biopic? Check out Madchester romp 24 Hour Party People. Hardcore relationship drama? He’s done that too, it’s called 9 Songs. Genova, for the most part, is a family drama about dealing with the grief of losing a wife and mother, with a bit of a supernatural thread.

Genova opens with a carefree scene of a Mother (Hope Davis) and her daughters (Willa Holland and Perla Haney-Jardine) playing a game in the car, but soon this idyll gives way to tragedy. Winterbottom, in one of his best touches, doesn’t force us to go through the usual clich├ęs; we don’t see the crash, we don’t go to the hospital, instead he cuts to black before throwing us, cold, into one of the most heartbreaking moments in a film that often pricks at the tear ducts. Winterbottom is a skilled director of actors; in A Mighty Heart he drew out Angelina Jolie’s best ever performance, and here he gets one equally powerful from young Perla Haney-Jardine (Uma Thurman’s daughter in Kill Bill), whose cries in that opening sequence seem to come from the depths of her soul.

Haney-Jardine is the standout in Genova, giving a performance that manages to be both subtle and alive with utterly believable emotion, without always having dialogue with which to express her character’s emotions. It’s a tough balancing act for one so young, and one that Haney-Jardine pulls off beautifully. She’s so good, in fact that there’s a chance that she’ll obscure the rest of a clutch of fine leading performances. The surprise is Colin Firth, usually just the blandly handsome object of the female cast’s (and audience’s) desire, he gives his first real performance in years here as a man trying desperately to hold himself together for the sake of his young daughters, but also deal with his own feelings. It’s a performance of unspoken emotion, but it’s so raw that you feel it all the time. Willa Holland, an ex OC star who I’d never previously seen, also impresses as the teenage daughter dealing with her emotions by rebelling. She gets to be the most open about what she’s feeling, and some of her cutting lines really sting.

In smaller roles Winterbottom is blessed with two of the best character actresses that American cinema currently has to offer, but only uses one of them to his full advantage. Catherine Keener, as Firth’s friend from his college days, is as effortlessly great and engaging as ever, but the film only really uses her as a tour guide, taking Firth, Holland and Haney-Jardine around Genova. There are hints at something more interesting between her character and Firth’s, but it comes to nothing. Hope Davis, as the ghostly mother (I promise you I’m giving nothing away), is barely used, and speaks very seldom, but she exudes such warmth, such love, that you completely buy into her appearance. Winterbottom also uses her very well, keeping her a distant and intermittent presence for most of the film, and never playing the ghost for scares. It’s a beautiful, touching and original take on a ghost story.

Unfortunately Genova’s screenplay isn’t as strong as its performances and its direction are. Outside of the family characters are severely underwritten, especially those of Hollland’s new Genovese friends and Firth’s students (also what, exactly, is he teaching them?) Equally problematic is a contrivance that I simply didn’t buy, used to bring the film to its climax, and the fact that, after that climax, the film fails to find an ending. For five more minutes it meanders, unsure what to do, and then it just stops, as suddenly as if the film had run out, leaving you with a feeling of ‘is that it?’ That’s a shame, because the bulk of the film deserves better.

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