Much like Ang Lee, Michael Winterbottom is a director who enjoys to genre hop, going from one style of film to another and rarely making the same film twice. The Brit director's previous film was the powerful A Mighty Heart which, among other things, reminded us that Angelina Jolie is actually an actress.
Genova again finds Winterbottom in not-so-happy territory: a family has lost their mother in a driving accident and with their grief still fresh the father, Joe (Colin Firth), takes his two daughters, who were also in the accident, to Italy where he has a summer teaching post in the city of Genova.
Joe's friend and former flame from his university days, Barbara (the ever-reliable Catherine Keener), is on-hand to help them with their culture shock and their grief, which each is dealing with in their own way. The younger daughter, who wakes in the nights screaming, sees and has conversations with her late mother (Hope Davis, another fine actress but underused here); father and teenage daughter prefer not to talk at all, one throwing himself into work, the other exploring her sexuality with the local boys.
All of this sounds ripe for emotional manipulation but Winterbottom, again like Lee, doesn't do easy emotion; the music never swells and he never prompts you to respond: if you feel anything you'll know you've worked for it. That approach can create a distance between you and the characters, an emotional disconnect. Audiences who want catharsis or an emotional release, like Jolie's primal scream in A Mighty Heart when her character finally learned the fate of her kidnapped husband, won't get that with the denouement of Genova.
On the upside, you will get to see Colin Firth in an atypical role. Too often cast as the Mr Darcy type (for obvious reasons) or the cuckolded husband/lover, it is good to see Firth avoid typecasting here. Fans should also keep an eye out for the forthcoming A Single Man, the directorial debut of fashion designer Tom Ford, which won Firth the Best Actor prize at this year's Venice Film Festival and is generating Oscar buzz.