Director Michael Winterbottom's refusal to be shackled to genre or the star system provides one of those all-too-rare big screen commodities: the inspiration to be more adventurous in your own life. He's done everything from music ('24 Hour Party People') to war ('Welcome to Sarajevo') to sexual obsession ('9 Songs'), and now with 'Genova' he turns his attention to family grief.
Having lost his wife Marianne (Davis) in a car crash, lecturer Joe (Firth) decides to leave the US with daughters Kelly and Mary (Holland and Haney-Jardine) and take up an offer of a year's teaching in Genoa, where his old college friend Barbara (Keener) also lives. Arriving at the height of summer, father and daughters struggle to support each other as they muddle through loss. And as days become weeks in their new home, it seems that they're all living in the same apartment but constructing new worlds for themselves.
Winterbottom and Firth make a good team and while 'Genova' has its faults, it makes you want to see the duo working together on another project. Playing the archetypal stiff upper lip Englishman, Firth has some superb scenes here with Haney-Jardine, their conversations feeling incredibly true-to-life. Unfortunately, the scenes with Holland (also an excellent young actress) lack the same emotional charge and, even with the teenage issues, this father-daughter relationship feels one dimensional.
With such a beautiful city as a canvas to tell the story on, Winterbottom makes the best use of the locations, juxtaposing the gloominess of the family's apartment with the vibrancy of life outside. Music, as much as the city, is also a character in the film and Winterbottom shows very well how it offers a bolthole to people in times of distress.
The languid pace and lack of 'big speech' scenes here won't be to everyone's liking, but for others the avoidance of 'everything's ok now' conventions will be just as impressive as Winterbottom's championing of the resilience of the human spirit.