: Colin Firth, Hope Davis, Catherine Keener, Willa Holland, Perla Haney-JardineDirector
: Michael WinterbottomScreenplay
: Laurence Coriat, Michael WinterbottomGenre
: M Mature themes and coarse languageRunning Time
: 94 MinutesReleased
: 5 Nov 2009Synopsis
A contemporary family ghost story in the vein of "Don't Look Now" mixed with the sexiness of "Stealing Beauty". The exotic town of Genova provides a fresh start for Joe and his two young daughters - a family in the throes of finding new lives after the sudden death of their mother. Kelly, the 16-year-old, explores the sexy and dangerous underbelly of this mysterious new world, while the youngest, Mary, has just seen the ghost of her mother wandering the streets.My Verdict
A tragic accident claims the life of Marianne (Hope Davis), mother to 16-year-old Kelly (Willa Holland) and 10-year-old Mary (Perla Haney-Jardine) and wife to Joe (Colin Firth). A few months later, Joe decides to relocate to Genova, Italy, at the suggestion of his ex-colleague Barbara (Catherine Keener), landing a job lecturing at the local university. Genova is their story following the accident.
Genova is a very demanding and almost depressing movie as we watch a family grieve for the loss of their wife and mother. Their grief is overwhelmingly raw as they struggle to carry on compounded by their culture shock at moving to another country, especially when they don't know the language. To that end, it does become a mini-travelogue with some wonderful scenery and scenes featuring unique hidden back streets that so many cities possess.
Colin Firth has the task of carrying the movie and does well with the job. Being thrust into becoming a single father to a teenage daughter and a younger daughter as well as dealing with his own life changes, Firth manages to shift between confidence to despair easily and is convincing. Willa Holland, as the teenage Kelly, is loaded with teenage angst as she makes friends with some local teenagers and begins to neglect her family. Perla Haney-Jardine has possibly the hardest role as the young Mary as it is her grief and guilt that is so overt as she struggles to understand the changes to her life. It is an extraordinary performance as night after night she suffers excruciating nightmares involving her mother, as well as seeing her mother in various locations around Genova.
There are some major frustrations with Genova, mainly the issue of impending action that never eventuates. The sense of an almighty climax looms well into the third act involving Joe and his daughters but we are severely let down with a soft resolution. There are some rewarding moments however, which save Genova from becoming too gloomy but these are too few. Director Michael Winterbottom has steered the movie around Genova, which for some might not be quite the place they had anticipated nor quite the movie they were expecting.
Rating : ***
About the Production
Inspired by a visit to the city of Genoa that Michael Winterbottom had made some years ago, Genova was shot on location in Italy, Sweden, UK and the US.
The filmmakers were keen to make a film with a European setting, as producer Andrew Eaton explains.
"We've shot quite a few films in the past few years in the Middle East and we wanted to do something a bit closer to home and European in setting. Nearly all of Michael Winterbottom film heroes are European: German, French and Italian, so he was particularly enthusiastic about maaking a film set in Europe. There are very few films which have American characters in a European setting set in the present day so hopefully that's something fresh and original."
Michael Winterbottom was also inspired by the Marguerite Duras novel "Moderato Cantabile". "Something about Genoa reminded me of that novel which is also set in a port. I read it a long time ago, but part of it had stuck in my mind about a parent taking a child to a piano lesson. So we borrowed that idea. I have two daughters and I thought it would be nice to do something about a father and two girls."
The city also reminded Michael Winterbottom of Nic Roeg's film Don't Look Now. "Genoa is in a way a twin city with Venice, the atmosphere is similar with very narrow alleyways. It's very beautiful, but also quite spooky and that reminded me of Nic Roeg's film. So that was also an influence."
With the key elements in place Michael Winterbottom turned to the main focus of the script. "Part of the attraction was to do something very observational about family life. I liked the idea of a family being re-located to a new place, where since they don't really know anyone they are thrown together. For me the film is about a father's love for his children and the children's relationship with each other, the death of the mother is just a starting point, I was more interested in looking at how they get on with the rest of their lives, to the extent that they can and the repetition of those daily things that is at the heart being in a family and at the heart of getting over their grief."
At this point Michael Winterbottom involved co-writer Laurence Coriat, who he had previously worked with on Wonderland and Me Without You. "Laurence Coriat is very easy to work with, she's very collaborative. So once I had a rough framework of the film I started working with her on the script."
When Andrew Eaton read the finished script he noticed how personal it seemed. "If you look at all of Michael Winterbottom's films, he's always interested in dealing with family and displaced people and of people in situations of stress and danger and examining how they deal with that. The first thing that struck me when I read this script was how much of Michael Winterbottom's life was in there. He has two daughters not dissimilar in age to the two girls in this story and there seemed to be echoes of Michael Winterbottom's own life in it."
The filmmakers next turned to casting the film. Michael Winterbottom explains the idea behind casting an English actor to play the father, with his children being played by American actors. "I liked the idea that the father was a different nationality to his children partly to serve the story, as being British in America it would be a natural thing that he would want to leave the US and return to Europe after the death of his wife. But also because these days more and more parents have a different nationality to their children so they have a cultural gap and I wanted to reflect that. So we were looking for an English actor and I wanted him to be sympathetic, and Colin Firth's a really great actor and he perfectly fit the bill."
Andrew Eaton adds. "The story always began in America and I think Michael Winterbottom liked the idea of displacement. The father is already living in a culture where he's displaced, it's not his normal setting and going from the UK to Italy is not a massive change like coming from the US which is a bigger culture shock which helps to make the children feel uncomfortable. It was important for Michael Winterbottom that the father be English as he's English, as a director it was easier for him to tell that story. He also had to be in his 40's to be believable and Colin Firth fulfills those criteria. Colin Firth is also a father himself and he brings all the right qualities to the part."
For his part Colin Firth was keen to work with Michael Winterbottom as an admirer of his films. "I think all actors want to work with Michael Winterbottom because his films are bold and exciting and I've never seen a bad performance in any of them. I think there is an immediacy to his films, I like the honesty of them and the fact that they never take an obvious approach. They're never trying to hit the usual buttons and tick the usual boxes. This film gives you a look at certain aspects of life that are very hard to tell stories about honestly. It's hard to tell a story about family love, it's hard to tell a story about grief, it's hard to tell a story about people trying to find their way out of sorrow that come from a tragic incident and I love the way that he never takes any easy routes.
You think you're going down a familiar emotional path, but it tends not to lead to where you think it's going to lead its actually something else, if you think people are going to be open with each other well they can touch on that, but they don't really resolve anything that way. There are moments when people really connect that are surprising, they come out of adversity or even banality, humour comes at surprising moments and I feel the film constantly offers that. It has endless twists and turns and shades of light and dark, rather like the geography of the town that are never what you expect."
Colin Firth was also drawn to the script's emotional subtleties. "It's so much to do with trying to navigate your way through a family, its obstacles and disappointments and the hopes that you have for your children that I found myself more focused on that than what's going to happen in drama terms. One of the things that fascinated me was how all those enormous issues are woven into the everyday. It's not so much the mother's death is the big elephant in the room that no one ever talks about, it's just life does have to go on.
Joe is a single father and he has things to get on with. One of the hardest things to adjust to is the banalities are not obliterated, in still matters what time they get in, what they are going to have for dinner, life almost brutally goes on as normal. And the feel of the film is very much to do with that. These huge issues don't play out like huge issues they play out in the ordinary details of life. And it's also about how a family has to operate whether something like that has happened or not. There is so much in it that I recognise. We all understand the territory, Michael Winterbottom, Andrew Eaton and I all have children even though all our experiences are different and don't reflect precisely this family, there's an endless amount to draw on as a parent."
Catherine Keener was cast as Barbara. She was an easy choice as Michael Winterbottom and Andrew Eaton had been trying to work with her for a while. Michael Winterbottom explains. "We'd met Catherine Keener a few years ago when we were planning another film that never happened. I think she's a great actor and has been in some amazing films. She's such a good actor that you very quickly understand what's going on with her character. You get the sense that Barbara would like to be emotionally involved with the family over and above the practical help she gives them, but that's not what they want, the children don't want another mother and Joe doesn't want another wife."
For Catherine Keener it was a combination of the script and the opportunity to work with Michael Winterbottom that attracted her to the project. "The script is beautifully written, I've loved Michael Winterbottom 's movies along with everybody else that I know and this opportunity came up. I thought the story was beautiful. The script seemed very personal. I don't know to who, but it is."
Catherine Keener was also delighted by her co-stars. "I've always loved Colin Firth. I too have been sort of in love with Colin Firth along with everyone else, he seems like such a romantic guy. He's a fierce actor and a tremendous intellect. Willa just sort of floats around ethereally, so smart and incredibly talented. Perla Haney-Jardine is destined to be one of the greats, she comes from nature, if you're lost in the process you just zero in on her to find out where you are."
Hope Davis was then cast to play Marianne. "Hope needed no persuasion to play the role," saysMichael Winterbottom. "She liked the script and she liked the role of the ghostly mum. She worked well with Willa and Perla Haney-Jardine, she was able to convey the sense that this family worked together."
Andrew Eaton adds, "Actresses were queuing up to be in the film. Especially actresses with children. They could connect with the idea of the mother, or in Catherine Keener's case in the part of Barbara of someone who would like to be a mother. I think Catherine Keener and Hope Davis are two of the best actresses in the world and we were lucky to get them. But it's a testament to the quality of the script that we had actresses so keen to be in the film."
"It wasn't the part so much as the script." Says Hope Davis. "The story was so moving to me, I'm the mother of two young daughters and I thought it was a beautiful story of a family trying to deal with something that we all dread will happen to us which is that a parent will be taken away. The script is so restrained and so moving without any kind of sentimentality I was just very, very moved by the story."
Finding young actresses to play the two girls was a slightly longer process. Michael Winterbottom explains how he came to cast Perla Haney-Jardine and Willa Holland as Mary and Kelly. "We were originally going to make Genova before A Mighty Heart and a couple of years ago I was sent a tape of Perla Haney-Jardine doing the scenes in the car in the beginning and I thought she looked very interesting, but felt she was a bit young, so when we finally met her a year and a half later she was the right age. She is incredibly natural, very intelligent and very subtle. Although she'd already been in a few films, she didn't come from LA and didn't seem like an acting child, she seemed very normal and believable. We'd also met Willa Holland the year before and she was our first choice then and remained our first choice. We wanted someone who was just at that age where in some ways they seem incredibly grown-up, but in other ways they are still child-like.
When we first met her she was 14 and seemed incredibly grown-up for her age. I wanted the dynamic in the family that the children were relatively close in age, but the older one is at the age where she wants to go out and do things by herself, so Mary is left by herself and is almost an only child. And with her father the relationship is that he still wants to look after her, but she is old enough to go out on her own, so it's the conflict of wanting to behave responsibly but allowing her her freedom."
Andrew Eaton adds, "We started looking for the two girls before we started looking for anyone else, as we knew that would be a longer search. Michael Winterbottom was keen for the girls to be American as it's a fact of life that there is more choice in America as it's a bigger industry. We meet a lot of kids, but the two that we found are both incredibly experienced considering their age. Willa had been in "The O.C." for quite a few seasons and Perla Haney-Jardine had already done Kill Bill 2 and Spiderman 3, which is not bad for someone who is only 10 years old!"
Willa Holland liked the story. "There's never really any good stories about a father and his daughters and their relationship. There's Disney, but there are no really heart-warming films like this. It was very different from all the scripts that I've read, it was heart touching and it hits a strong point."
Michael Winterbottom began making documentaries in England in the late 1980's and moved into dramatic features a few years later. With his 1997 film Welcome to Sarajevo, he began shooting dramatic stories in documentary style. To heighten the sense of reality and truth, he kept his crews small and unobtrusive, and encouraged his actors to improvise. His preferred subjects, from the political docudrama The Road to Guantanamo to the lighter but still provocative 24 Hour Party People, were well-suited to this approach.
Filming of Genova proceeded in typical Michael Winterbottom style: director of photography Marcel Zyskind, who has worked on many films with Michael Winterbottom, operated a hand-held camera. There were no rehearsals, and no master shots or attendant series of close-ups. Most takes ran the full length of a scene, and scenes were shot in sequence. Michael Winterbottom didn't call "action" or tell anyone where the camera would be. That was decided in the moment, sometimes with Michael Winterbottom gripping the back of Michael Zyskind's shirt to steer him.
Natural light was used whenever possible to allow actors and camera freedom of movement. Michael Winterbottom creates an environment which feels as little like a film-set as possible. He explains why he prefers this working method. "Working with a small crew is more relaxed and it's more enjoyable to work that way.
A film like this one with a small camera, no lights, four walls and very little crew couldn't be more different.It means that you have the benefit of momentum and you are all part of the process together and you can see it unravelling together and you're discovering it as it goes along. And if you're working with children it's a huge advantage because you can suspend disbelief much more easily. Michael Winterbottom doesn't say action or cut, things just start so an awful lot of the interaction between myself and the two young girls was very natural and spontaneous and came quite naturally out of the relationship that we found with each other.
You are thrown together with people who you are expected to assume a whole history of suggested intimacy, with people you didn't know a week ago, but this way of working was conducive to that and it never felt difficult in that respect."
In order to speed up the 'getting to know each other' process before filming began, Michael Winterbottom sent Firth on a shopping expedition with Willa and Perla. Firth explains how this worked. "Michael Winterbottom introduced the three of us to each other and sent us shopping to buy some stuff to make lunch, It was one of those bonding exercises that because you are aware of it, the danger is you resist it slightly, but it really worked.
We knew each other much better at the end of a two hour shopping expedition than we would otherwise likely have done in any other two hour situation if we'd been sitting around reading from the script or if we'd been sitting around making polite conversation. Michael Winterbottom tries to make things as immediate and as truthful as possible and knowing there is very little time to do that he's basically found a way of fast-tracking the relationship where you can just put a camera on it. We also went shopping for props for the flat and had an argument about what to buy on our limited budget, Willa wanted to buy clothes for her character while I wanted things for the kitchen, it played into a dynamic which was absolutely real."
For Catherine Keener, Michael Winterbottom's working process was not unfamiliar. "When I got the crew list, I turned the page over expecting more, but that was it, literally about ten names. I've worked with Spike Jonze who works a little bit in the same way, so you never quite know what you're doing. It shows me that you don't really need a lot of the extra stuff to make a movie, you really don't, it comes down to story, the director and some actors and somebody who can operate camera and sound and it doesn't take that much equipment.
But it takes a lot of work and sensitivity and preparation combined with luck. Michael Winterbottom takes advantage of luck when it presents itself and that's when the indescribable magic things that happen with his movies occur."
Hope Davis also loved the working method. "There's none of the normal stuff that comes with making a film, which is hours and hours of waiting while all the equipment is set up. Michael Winterbottom seems to really capture something that is real, that looks real and sounds real and he's not interested in any of the artifice that is around filmmaking. For actors it's great as none of the artifice is interesting to us, it's all just waiting around and it's not really fun to have your hair fussed with the moment you're supposed to be doing something when you're trying to concentrate, so for us it's an actors dream, it's not about looking right it's about something else."
For Willa Holland, Michael Winterbottom's working method had a more practical advantage. "It is a blessing. It's so nice to be working with such a small crew, as you can remember everyone's names and you don't have to feel bad that you don't and you build relationships with the people you are working with who become like family."
The way we worked on this and the way I like to work is technically hand-held with minimal lighting and to allow the actors to improvise a little bit around the script, although in this case there was minimal improvisation in that sense. It allows for a more informal relationship between the actors and the camera and makes it more free. We used the locations that were there, as the whole purpose was to capture the atmosphere of Genoa. Having a smaller crew gets rid of the more exhausting aspect of fim-making and just makes everyone more relaxed."
Filming in the city was also straight-forward. "Genoa doesn't have much of a film industry, so everyone who helped us were incredibly helpful to us and very excited and enthusiastic which made it very easy."
For Colin Firth, Michael Winterbottom's way of working was very different from what he was used to. "The small crew leant an intimacy to the experience. In some ways it couldn't be more different. If you are making a big film you can be in a very, very impersonal and mechanical environment, surrounded by a lot of hardware and people who operate hardware, hundreds of people doing things, endless background artistes and it can take hours and hours to shoot some tiny fragment of the story. So the pace is dictated by that, it's inevitably shot out of sequence and the energy that's required to do that is a very strange one,because you are fighting against the dangerous effects of downtime, which can suck you dry.