Film review – Genova (2008)

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Joe (Colin Firth)

Prior to playing the role of a grieving husband in Genova, Colin Firth gave what had been his strongest performance to date in Anand Tucker’s And When Did You Last See Your Father? playing the role of a grieving son. Perhaps the challenge of expressing such complex and painful emotions brings out the best in an actor as in Firth’s case it has certainly now demonstrated again just how fine a performer he is. In Genova he plays Joe, a man whose wife Marianne (Hope Davis) tragically dies in a car accident. Joe is left to look after his two daughters, 16-year-old Kelly (Willa Holland) and his younger daughter Mary (Perla Haney-Jardine) who is feeling an oppressive degree of guilt about the accident that caused her mother’s death. Joe relocates his family from the USA to the northern Italian seaport city Genova, after receiving an invitation from an old university friend, Barbara (Catherine Keener) to teach at the local university. While learning to adjust to an entirely new way of life Kelly’s emerging rebelliousness and sexuality places her in increasingly vulnerable situations while Mary begins to have visions of her mother wandering through the labyrinthine streets.

Genova is a beautifully measured film about family, loss and moving on with life. With a skilled director like Michael Winterbottom (Welcome to Sarajevo, Wonderland, The Claim, 24 Hour Party People, A Cock and Bull Story, A Mighty Heart) at the helm you can be assured that it will never delve into cheap sentiment. Winterbottom is a director of such integrity that he restrains all potential indulgences that would have been tempting to give into, considering the subject matter, to instead focus on small moments of great resonance: the awkwardness of hugging somebody at a wake while holding a plate of food, the momentary sigh of frustration a parent gives when woken by a crying child before they leap out of bed to provide comfort. Winterbottom is not a cold or detached director but he is an incredibly thoughtful one who makes sure that moments that do provoke an intense emotional response are deserved and genuine.

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Mary (Perla Haney-Jardine) and Kelly (Willa Holland)

Surrounding the beautiful character dynamics at play in Genova is the titular city. Winterbottom’s now trademark use of handheld digital cinematography, along with the ambient sound, perfectly captures the light and atmosphere. The dense city streets, buildings covered in scaffolding, grief theme and gradual introduction of Marianne as a ‘ghost’ in the story somewhat evokes Nicolas Roeg’s Venice set thriller Don’t Look Now. However, the comparison is only superficial and audiences expecting a supernatural horror from Genova are going to be disappointed. In fact, the true nature of what exactly it is the Mary sees is left deliberately ambiguous and while Genova may not conclude with a traditional narrative climax, it emotionally delivers all the way to the end. Genova is an incredible film that you won’t want to let go of. Winterbottom is one of the greatest living directors and Genova demonstrates this. Again.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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  1. A big fan of this too Thomas; it slowly builds up a disquieting sort of undercurrent and has you expecting the worst.

    With regards to the visions Mary experiences – I had a discussion about this with somebody and came to the conclusion that it boils down to faith on a personal level as to whether they really occur and whether there are any sinister designs behind them. I like how Winterbottom draws you in, expecting a dire, bleak finale but turns it into something far more innocuous but somehow fitting.

  2. Yes, I agree that Mary could be a ghost, angel, hallucination or vision and it is deliberately left for personal interpretation. Winterbottom certainly does constantly allude to the possibility of further tragedy but I love that he went for an understated emotional climatic ending rather than a traditional resolution. In a weird and very left-of-field way this approach reminded me of the way David Lynch abandons all literal realism to instead expression an emotional reality. Winterbottom and Lynch are vastly different directors of course but in this case the effect is similar.

  3. spot on. this IS a good one, and good to see your name up in lights for this one too. the tension in this film is extraordinary, in fact it’s only the neatness of the end that left me wanting – for such a layered film, it would have been nice to have a layered ending. some great moments, great acting, direction, that scene when she walks away and you know she’s crying, but you can’t see her crying…

  4. *** CINEMA AUTOPSY edit – minor spoilers warning ***

    As a mother, the film left me with a sense of despair for the future of Mary. Does she get the help she so desperately needs? why had nothing happened up to now when she has an obvious problem? or does this all happen and the ending when they start school is supposed to be a ‘happy’ one? I feel the ghost is Mary’s imagination and has been conjured up by the child to receive absolution.

  5. *** Minor spoilers warning ***

    One of the many things I like about this film (and many of Winterbottom’s other films) is that he doesn’t try to wrap up everything within the space of the film because life doesn’t really work that way. I think the ending of Genova simply implies that while they clearly all have a long way to go, they are all starting to heal.

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