I haven’t seen any of Michael Winterbottom’s other films except for 24 Hour Party People, which I found disappointing (too much Happy Mondays, not enough Joy Division/New Order and Stone Roses, among other issues) – and, frankly, they didn’t much appeal to me. I wasn’t necessarily expecting Genova to be great, but because I have a deep regard for Genova (Genoa) – a Genet-esque city where medieval palaces and cobbled lanes are populated by sailors, junkies and sex workers, where the ancient meets the industrial – and because it doesn’t get much play amid the Tuscan and Sicilian fantasies of Italy as destination, I thought I would give this one a go. The story follows Joe (Colin Firth) and his two daughters, who move from the US to Genova after the death of Joe’s wife, and the sometimes-perilous social and romantic entanglements they form in dealing with their grief, guilt, and blame. Catherine Keener is particularly impressive as Barbara, Joe’s colleague.
This is an atmospheric film, shot in hand-held fashion which I at first found irritating and claustrophobic, but which grew on me throughout the film. It’s particularly effective in the memorable beach scenes, which channel perfectly a vivid haziness reminiscent of the ‘60s and ‘70s which we also see, for example, in the photographs of Mario Testino. The cinematography and editing are interestingly evocative of the disconnected, fraught and uncertain mood which pervades the work and characterises the characters’ emotional state (to which the well-judged soundtrack also contributes). There are heavy shades of Don’t Look Now in the re-appearances of the mother in the alleyways of Genoa, though in tragic and disquieting rather than horrific register. The cast are all excellent – both Willa Holland as the typical (that is, unbearable) adolescent Kelly, and Perla Haney-Jardine as the younger Mary, do an excellent job – with the singular exception of Colin Firth, who I found irritating throughout, making it difficult to believe the romantic entanglements which he negotiates. The classes he teaches, too, are a weak point, reading like cod-pop-sociology, though they give the Italians, who otherwise form the background, their main chance to be represented as people rather than scenery. While there is a climactic event and a re-emergence of hope, the film refuses to end neatly, and this too is a strength.
There are some hints here of the typical contemporary narrative of Europe as the dark and perilous other of the English-speaking world (think of Hostel or Eastern Promises), but nonetheless the depiction of Italy and Genova in this film is well achieved, and one which bucks prevailing trends – atmosphere is definitely the film’s strongest suite, and for that alone it is worth seeing. While it is flawed, this is never less than an interesting work.