Directed by Alan Rickman, The Winter's Guest is unsurprisingly an actor's exercise. The setting is the coast of Scotland, with the sea frozen hard (an impressively seamless visual effect) for this set of four loosely linked character vignettes. We have Elspeth and Frances, a mother-daughter pair -- with Frances contemplating a move to Australia after her husband's death; Frances' son Alex in a daylong flirtation with Nita, a local girl; Sam and Tom, two lads playing hooky; and Chloe and Lilly, two old biddybodies whose sole occupations in life are attending funerals.
The strongest of the four is easily the casual friendship between Sam and Tom. Unlike the other three tales, their scenes are vigorous and quite often funny -- with the two swapping stories that reveal their misbegotten ideas about sex. That is, until the ending of their story -- which comes across as so bizarre that it's obviously symbolic. Symbolic of death, of transition, and of what's seriously wrong with the movie. With its contrasting set of four stories, The Winter Guest is clearly concerned with the transition between the four phases of a human life -- Sam and Tom are children becoming adolescents; Alex is on the threshold of maturing into adulthood; Frances has cut her hair, signifying the transition to her older years; and Chloe and Lilly compulsively stare over the precipice to the death awaiting them.
The major problem with The Winter Guest is its air of ponderous symbolism. Death (and that's the big-D Death favored by screenwriters who've seen one Bergman film too many) hangs over the film, chilling the human warmth out of it, with the end result resembling the frozen sea. There are several fine moments scattered among the various vignettes; but since the characters are largely archetypes, the film doesn't cohere into a believable human portrait - it's too busy showing off its Deep Symbolic Meaning. Contrast this with a film like The Sweet Hereafter, which shares a lot of thematic similarities, but unlike The Winter Guest, has recognizably flawed human characters at its core. The Winter Guest makes you want to think; The Sweet Hereafter makes you want to feel -- and that's why The Sweet Hereafter is a haunting experience and The Winter Guest only so much intellectual noodling.
The pacing doesn't help much either -- Chloe and Lilly disappear from the movie for over an hour, and when they reappear near the end, their story has lost all narrative momentum. (Not to mention their story, like Sam and Tom's, ends on a bizarre moment that feels completely forced.) There's also a nauseatingly awful piano score by Michael Kamen; thankfully, it only makes an occasional appeareance. (The New York Press' Matt Zoller Seitz noted that people might be put off by the sparse music; certainly true -- but not the way I think he meant.) Rickman displays a fine visual flair for an actor-turned-director (the cinematography is superb), but a bit more warmth and humanity would be nice next time around.