Widowed Joe (Colin Firth) moves his two daughters, the youngest, Mary (Perla Haney-Jardine) and her teenage sister Kelly (Willa Holland) to Italy after their mother, Marianne (Hope Davis) dies in a car accident, in order to revitalize their lives. Genova changes all three of them as the youngest daughter starts to see the ghost of her mother, while the older one discovers her sexuality.
Review by Louise Keller:
Michael Winterbottom knows how to tell a story. He knows how to make it real and how to press our emotional buttons. This story about love, loss and making new rules is not unfamiliar, yet in Winterbottom’s hands, it has an appealing freshness. New beginnings in new Italian surroundings include not only a culture change, but a chance to come out from the shadows inherited by the past. Life affirming and warm, Genova captures a great sense of place as we explore the intricate maze of cobbled streets, the historic buildings with peeling facades and well-worn green shutters, sunny beaches and dense forests.
The scenes before the opening credits belong in the old life of Colin Firth’s Joe and his two daughters Mary (Perla Haney-Jardine) and Kelly (Willa Holland). The trigger for everything that happens in the film occurs in the first scene – in black, white and silver. There’s a magnificent wintry setting with snow-laden fir trees, there’s blackness when eyes are closed for a guessing game; the silver of metal is only one of several interpretations. But the story really begins in the Italian port of Genova or La Superba, as it is known, after its magnificent historic past, when Joe and the girls relocate from Chicago. ‘If you like pasta and ice cream, you’ll be fine,’ Joe’s old University friend Catherine Keener’s Barbara tells Mary when they arrive.
Like the modulating notes at Mary and Kelly’s piano lessons down the myriad of narrow laneways that divides the 16th century buildings, life changes key. Firth is well cast as the loving father intent on protecting his family, while Keener draws us to her Barbara, even though we can only sense an aura of sadness around her. Hope Davis makes a strong impression as Marianne, whose presence is felt throughout and Margherita Romeo’s Rosa is vital as Joe’s love interest. These are the characters that form the rod of the story, while Holland’s Kelly (discovering her sexuality), and Haney-Jardine (as the little girl who senses things) waver in different directions until all the story strands come together at the end. Brazilian actress Haney-Jardine is outstanding as Mary; her emotional outpouring engulfs us like a wave from one of those glorious sunny Genova beaches.
There are secrets and candles, time jumps and flash backs as well as love trysts. There are also a few more hand-held camera moments than I would like. But the story and the characters touch us profoundly and we are sucked into their reality. This is a beautiful film that crosses all kinds of boundaries, leaving us refreshed and filled with anticipation.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
I didn’t know Michael Winterbottom could make a dull movie until now. Genova, otherwise known perhaps as The Narrow Lanes of Genova, is a strange film which seems to have lost its bearings and its direction somewhere between concept and production. The screenplay is often tedious, and there are far too many scenes which fizzle and go nowhere. Abundant hand-held images take us through the maze of ancient alleyways like some enthusiastic home video made by tourists from the New World enchanted by the old.
The story is slight at best, triggered by the fatal accident that kills Marianne (Hope Davis) in a crash caused by Mary (Perla Haney-Jardine) during a game in the car on a snowy road. The action quickly moves to Genova, where Joe (Colin Firth) has been given a year’s contract teaching (not quite sure what) at the university. Catherine Keener is on hand, a friend from student days, but the relationship is neither charged with potential romance nor stabilised with platonic friendship. It’s just annoying.
The film is half over before anything remotely interesting happens (actually or any other way) and by then we hardly care. Even though Perla Haney-Jardine is cute and effective (and the film’s biggest asset) as the anxious daughter, Winterbottom has not made us care deeply enough even about her to glue us to our seats. She sees her mother’s ghost – we see her too – in a few unrelated scenes that have no dramatic value. In the final sighting, though, she is on the other side of a busy urban thoroughfare while Mary is following her in a desperate and life threatening sense of clinging to what has been lost. It’s a scene more irritating for the way it’s shot than moving for any emotional value.
Willa Holland is also good as the teenage sister on the brink of sexual awakening, but this awakening is presented in rather fitful style and is completely dull.
Colin Firth has little to do as the widowed father other than wait up at nights for Kelly, cook breakfast and mope about. A simple exposition of family grief – as this is – cannot sustain cinematic needs; we need to explore and be emotionally involved. We’re not studying grief for some obscure exam. When the end credits roll, we are left wondering what we just experienced; I regret to say not much.
Email this article
CAST: Colin Firth, Catherine Keener, Hope Davis, Willa Holland. Perla Haney-Jardine
PRODUCER: Michael Winterbottom, Andrew Eaton
DIRECTOR: Michael Winterbottom
SCRIPT: Michael Winterbottom, Laurence Coriat
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Marcel Zyskind
EDITOR: Paul Monaghan
MUSIC: Melissa Parmenter
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Mark Digby
RUNNING TIME: 93 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Palace Films
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: November 5, 2009