Dir. Michael Winterbottom. UK. 2008. 94mins
A family’s struggles with loss, grief and guilt form the basis of a frustratingly insubstantial drama inGenova.Michael Winterbottom’s latest effort is commendable for its refusal to indulge in easy sentimentality but the pricefor that is an elusive, low-key tale that keeps the viewer at arm’s length. The audience for a Winterbottom film tends to be modest at the best of times but its hard to see who will be attracted by a story that is mildly intriguing without ever becoming compelling. Theatrical prospects look marginal.
Genova begins with a classic set-up for a tv-movie weepie. Mary-Ann (Hope Davis) and her daughters are driving along an icy road in the depth of winter. They play games and exude contentment signalling that tragedy is only a
heartbeat away. Mary (Perla Haney-Jardine) is the unwitting architect of an accident in which her mother dies. Five months later, her father Joe (Colin Firth) accepts a teaching job that will involve spending a year in Italy. Soon, Joe, Mary and her older sister Kelly (Willa Holland) are heading for a fresh start in Genova.
Thus far, the film remains reasonably promising. Winterbottom is then able to capture Genova as a city full of possibilities. Prowling the narrow, winding streets, dead ends and back alleys helps to create a sense of oppression and a mild degree of threat at what could be lurking around the next corner - although comparisons with Nicolas Roeg’s use of Venice in Don’t Look Now (1973) seem wildly overstated and unconvincing.
Winterbottom does create a viable sense of a family trying to live as if the dear-departed never existed. Mary-Ann is scarcely mentioned and each surviving member of the family clings to a separate life. Joe takes a shine to his new students. Kelly embraces la dolce vita and the Italian boys. Only Kelly actively keeps her mother’s memory alive and is sustained in this strange new environment by frequent sightings of what we assume is her mother’s ghost: a benign figure who offers smiling encouragement and words of forgiveness to her child.
Everything about Genova seems a little half-hearted. Winterbottom clearly wants to avoid having to state the obvious, but that leaves everything feeling underdeveloped and unimportant. The sense of menace on the streets of Genova is vague, the idea of conflict between Joe and the hedonistic Kelly simmers rather than explodes, romantic tensions between Joe and an old colleague (Catherine Keener) are hinted at rather than explored. Even when Mary disappears and is then discovered at a train station proves only a momentary raising of the stakes that is soon resolved.
Genova looks very beautiful and Winterbottom has secured persuasive performances from the cast, even if Hope Davis seems rather wasted in such a thankless role. Straying a little from his trademark role of the emotionally
constipated Englishman, Firth is convincing as a caring father who can only try to cope and endure. Willa Holland plays the sulky teenage rebel to perfection and Perla Haney-Jardine is yet another child actor who seems a natural in front of the camera. Winterbottom’s fondness for hand-held camerawork adds an immediacy to the proceedings and places the viewer at the heart of what little actually happens, but there is just not enough here to keep average audiences interested or to leave them feeling satisfied.