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2009-08-11 08:57

What it's about:

Tragedy strikes a middle class family when Marianne (Hope Davis) is killed in a freak accident, leaving behind her British professor husband Joe (Colin Firth) and their two young daughters Kelly (Willa Holland) and Mary (Perla Haney-Jardine). Joe decides to relocate his mourning family to the Italian city of Genoa ('Genova' in the local parlance) to make a fresh start. As the teenage Kelly begins to discover her sexuality, her guilt-ridden younger sister is visited by apparitions of her dead mother.

What we thought:

Michael Winterbottom doesn’t recognise any other mode besides "intense". His formidable filmography includes such harrowing chapters as The Road to Guantanamo, A Mighty Heart (in which Angelina Jolie played the pregnant widow of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl), and the graphic sexual ennui of the highly controversial 9 Songs (which featured scenes of unsimulated sex).

The premise for Genova sounds more tranquil and inviting, and its shots of sun-kissed bikini bodies on the Italian seaside certainly gives it the quaint appeal of watching a grieving family heal while on an extended holiday. Only imagine watching your own family vacation home videos. Not something you'd particularly want to share with the whole world, right? In many ways, the intimacy and low-key, unassuming way in which Genova is shot is its greatest failing. The camera pries into the heartbreak and disillusionment after the family's tragic loss, before casting out the viewer's attentions with needlessly long and languorous takes that are just there for exposition. There's no discernible drama, suspense or even comedy in any of the scenes, and for the most part the movie feels like the first edit of a film school freshman project.

Young, impressionable Mary is highly imaginative and wracked by guilt over her mother's death. She often wanders off, following the "ghost" of her mother around this strange city with its imposing labyrinth of narrow streets. Meanwhile her older teenage sister, Kelly, could care less about Mary's emotional torture, numbing her own mourning with partying and the gorgeous Italian men on offer. Joe's reaction is harder to gauge. He flirts a bit with one of his students, and seems attentive enough to his kids, but clearly left much of the parenting to his wife.

What the film does get right, almost to an uncomfortable degree, is the crumbling relationship between the once-close sisters. It's only natural for two people, at different stages in their development, to drift apart. The added stress of losing a parent makes their fragile transition from carefree children to the bearers of such heartbreak an intriguing portrait of innocence lost. The supernatural element is dealt with non-committally, like a waking dream suspended between the past and present, and unable to engage on either plane.

The actors, both young and old, work seamlessly together and have clearly been versed in playing their characters with as much natural truth as they could muster - but that makes them seem more interesting than they actually are. Much of the dialogue seems improvised and the characters feel familiar – perhaps because we are offered so many glimpses into their mundane lives. However, there's one beacon of hope in this miserable morass – the radiantly wonderful, always fascinating Catherine Keener, who plays Barbara, an old friend of Joe's who arranges his new job in Genova. She has a particular interest in this broken family, and Keener's charming performance slowly unfurls to reveal myriad dimensions and, perhaps, the glue that could potentially put them back together.

There's much going on beneath the surface of Genova, but the view is so obscured by Winterbottom's bloody-mindedness in telling his story in such a fractured, almost listless manner that any audience investment in his characters is poorly rewarded – and that can only result in frustration.

Which is perhaps what he was aiming for all along.

Colin Firth plays a widowed father who relocates his grieving children to Italy, in this plodding tragi-drama with a supernatural twist.

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