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Michael Winterbottom is a director that never sticks to one genre and never compromises his vision. From the well-received music bio-pic 24 Hour Party People, to a meta-comedy in A Cock and Bull Story, to a sexually graphic concert narrative in 9 Songs, to the story of Daniel Pearl’s murder in the Middle East with A Mighty Heart, he won’t shy from controversial subject matter. That makes his new film, Genova, that much more interesting because it is on all accounts a very safe and simple tale when compared to the others. There really isn’t anything he is trying to say here, just him telling a story about how a family deals with the loss of their wife/mother. Joe, Mary, and Kelly all feel the death strongly and cope in different ways. Eventually moving to Italy, Joe hopes the change of scenery will help them move on with their lives. Sometimes, though, especially when dealing with a tragedy as they are, it is not that simple.

Colin Firth plays Joe with a wonderful sense of restraint. He is saddened by the turn of events, but knows he must stay strong for his two daughters, especially Mary who holds herself responsible for her mother’s death. Reconnecting with an old friend from college, Catherine Keener, he discovers a job opening teaching at a college in Genova, Italy. With this guide helping him along, he decides to take the girls with him and hope a little European air will alleviate some of the pain of the past, a way to look towards the future. The locale is an interesting one, though, always seeming somewhat shady yet affluent at the same time. The beach is definitely a plus for the girls, but the long walks through strange neighborhoods, not knowing the language, is intimidating to say the least.

Joe finds that he isn’t quite sure what he wants. He knows that Keener’s character is there for him, seemingly to us that she wants a relationship, and also meets a student that appears interested as well. This possibility of a young affair strikes him as exciting and while beginning rather innocently, soon escalates to the point where he goes on a date, leaving his older daughter alone to watch her sister. A dangerous prospect for sure, especially knowing what the audience does about the volatile relationship the two have. Mary blames herself for their mother’s death and Kelly is not one to correct her; she feels the only reason they are where they are is due to her sister.

Over the course of the story, Kelly, played by Willa Holland, descends into a circle of people who stay out late, do drugs, and party. Being made to move against her will, she decides to rebel a bit, finding a local boy to become her lover and pretty much be a selfish brat while the rest of the family mourns. Rather than join them, Kelly feels all she needs is to forget about the whole ordeal, have fun and not think about it. This detachment to the family doesn’t make life easier for Mary, a great performance by Perla Haney-Jardine, as she has no one to talk to. Her father is working and dating and her sister abandons her at piano lessons in order to continue her sexual escapades, using threats to keep it secret from their father. The only person she has to talk with is her deceased mother for whom she begins seeing. This ghost leads Mary around Genova, causing trouble and scares along the way, but also conveniently allowing for circumstances to come up, those that have the potential to mend all the broken fences.

It is this fact that bothered me about the film. At its core is a very emotive tale of loss, coping, and redemption, but while the beginning two thirds portray this, the final act decides to tie all loose ends up as easily as possible, sending young Mary on a journey with her dead mother, carefully orchestrated to make the rest of the characters come find her. The writing is on the wall throughout, you feel it’s just a matter of time before Kelly’s new friends show they aren’t as great as she thinks, the genial bond between Keener and Firth becomes strained, and the father slowly drifts from his daughters, unaware what’s going on with them because he is too busy trying to get over his own grief. Some of the best scenes come when Firth enters Haney-Jardine’s room to console her after a nightmare or vision ends with her mother leaving once again. It is heartbreaking to watch at times, however, the way it all comes together subverts that power, showing how manufactured scripts can be. I understand the desire for cyclical narratives, starting the film with a car crash and ending it with one, but stuff like that is so obvious that the artifice takes you away from the craft onscreen. The acting and characters are all fully fleshed-out beings—truly remarkable across the board—it is just a shame that the story doesn’t stay as consistent as them, to allow for a profound conclusion rather than the easy one laid before us.

Genova 7/10

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photography:
[1] Colin Firth & Perla Haney-Jardine in Michael Winterbottom’s GENOVA. Still by Phil Fisk
[2] Willa Holland in Michael Winterbottom’s GENOVA. Still by Phil Fisk

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