Reviewed by: Val Kermode

In a Chicago winter, a mother is driving in light traffic along a snowy road. In the back seat her two daughters, one teenage, the other younger, are playing a car spotting game, giggling as they take turns to cover their eyes. Suddenly the screen goes black and we hear all the sounds of a terrible accident.

The younger girl awakens from a nightmare screaming for her mother, who has died. Physically, the daughters’ injuries are slight. We see them next at the funeral with their father, college lecturer Joe (Colin Firth). Then five months later Joe has been offered a year’s post at the University of Genova and decides the move will be good for all three of them.

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This excellent opening, low key, yet emotionally wrenching, heralds the quality of this film. As the family settle into their apartment, helped by Joe’s old Harvard friend Barbara (Catherine Keener) the intimacy and fragility of their life is conveyed in tightly framed shots and details like the photographs that Mary (Perla Haney-Jardine) sticks onto the walls of her room. The tension between the two sisters is already apparent. The older girl, Kelly (Willa Holland) says “I’d rather have a small room than be with her.”

Later, as the girls walk through the narrow alleyways of the city to and from their piano lessons, Kelly says “Don’t walk next to me!” and Mary has to follow at a distance. She becomes even more unwelcome as Kelly begins to discover her sexuality, creating new tensions between her and her father.

But Mary is still having nightmares and begins to hear and see her mother. At first there are glimpses, reminiscent of Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, a figure slipping out of a doorway, Mary’s hand resting in another. There are heavy warnings about the danger of getting lost in the alleyways and we expect something to happen to Mary here. But the greatest drama takes place elsewhere, when we least expect it. As in real life, devastating events can take place in brilliant sunshine as easily as in darkness.

The acting throughout is superb, Colin Firth giving possibly his best performance yet in this pivotal role of a man playing down his own grief as he cares for his daughters and adapts to the new balance of relationships. He conveys great tenderness, but at the same time this is someone putting his deepest feelings on hold, unable to deal with them and using his paternal responsibilities as a shield.

The various tensions are delicately handled, the sisters, the father daughter relationship, the unspoken feelings of Barbara, who obviously sees a new role for herself in Joe’s life. Against these struggles for the main characters is painted a sunny picture of Italian family life, with very natural performances from the minor characters.

A lot of this is filmed with a hand-held camera, which adds to the sense of intimacy and works especially well when Joe is searching frantically for his daughter and when he is swimming in the sea. In contrast, sweeping scenes of Genova show the glittering beauty and scale of the city.

The film is good to look at throughout and directed with the flair we have come to expect from the versatile Winterbottom. Yet ultimately there is something curiously unsatisfying about it. Despite the care which has been lavished on it, it doesn’t quite pack the dramatic punch it seems to promise. I could have done with a few more twists in the labyrinth.

Reviewed on: 31 Mar 2009
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In a foreign city, a young girl begins to catch glimpses of the mother she lost in a car crash.
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Director: Michael Winterbottom

Writer: Laurence Coriat, Michael Winterbottom

Starring: Colin Firth, Catherine Keener, Perla Haney-Jardine, Willa Holland, Hope Davis, Demetri Goritsas

Year: 2008

Runtime: 94 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK

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