It’s an old, familiar tale, grief, one that has been told in so many different ways, with so many angles of it examined and laid bare in cinema and literature. Michael Winterbottom’s treatment of loss is a subtle one, with much of the sadness left for the audience to uncover for themselves.
The film opens with ten year old Mary (Perla Haney-Jardine) and her sixteen year old sister, Kelly (Willa Holland), playing a game in the car as their mother (Hope Davis) drives. Mary, caught up in the game, unthinkingly covers her mother’s eyes and they crash into an oncoming car. And then we’re at the funeral. We’re in the awkward conversations, the stifling sadness. We’re with Joe (Colin Firth) as he graciously accepts people’s offers of sorrow with that mute shock that follows a sudden tragedy. Seemingly looking for a change, or to simply escape, Joe accepts a position teaching at a university in Genova and relocates his children from New York to an apartment down one of the Italian city’s many winding alleys. There they individually struggle with their pain and in Mary’s case, their guilt. Joe flirts with a romance with one of his students, as his relationship with an old college friend, Barbara (Catherine Keener) struggles to realise itself; Kelly finds herself a boyfriend as insolently pretty as she is, to assist her in her dual voyage of escapism and self discovery, and Mary wanders the streets lighting candles and getting lost knowing her mother is never far away to lead her home.
The film is unconventional in technique and structure. The use of handheld camera and long, continual shots mish mashed with short, sharp scenes, drags you in and puts you inside the mourning family and inside the gritty, hot bustle of Genova. The absence of conventional plot is also vaguely disorienting; there’s nothing to hold on to, no markers to map where you’ve been and where you’ll likely go as the film proceeds. Thus we are not merely observing Joe and his two daughters as they navigate a new life in a new country without their wife and mother, we are joining them and their uncertainty.
The performances are all strong and utterly believable, largely because they are without the heaviness of overt sentimentality. In fact the film is largely without sentimentality in general, which makes it such an intensely life like experience as opposed to a cinematic one. We aren’t sad because all the filmic indications are telling us we should be – we’re sad because we can see exactly, no we can feel exactly, what is going on beneath the surface as the family try to pick up the pieces. Because that is exactly where grief so often lies – beneath the surface.