Verdict: Style in search of story.
The extraordinarily versatile English director Winterbottom is capable of bleak satire (Welcome to Sarajevo); self-mocking comedy (Tristram Shandy); enraged quasi-documentary (In This World); and gentle drama of little lives (the wonderful Wonderland). But he also made, let it be remembered, the quite appalling 9 Songs.
His newest is probably closest to Wonderland in style. It's the naturalistically observed story of a Chicago-based English academic, Joe (Firth), who takes his two daughters to the Italian city of the title for a year after their mother is killed in a car crash.
They set up home and he takes up a short-term job at the university that his Genova-based old Harvard mate, Barbara (Keener), has organised for him. Meanwhile the girls' lives follow strikingly different trajectories: teenage Kelly (Holland) discovers the local boys while the younger Mary (Haney-Jardine) is, literally, haunted by her mother (Davis), whose death she blames herself for.
It's a promising premise but the film that results is all style in search of story. The screenplay which, like Wonderland's, Winterbottom wrote with Laurence Coriat, feels like a first draft in which a whole lot of ideas are introduced but never worked out.
"I'm on a voyage of discovery," Joe tells Mary when she asks why he never cooked pasta in the UK, but if he discovers anything other than the recipe for spaghetti carbonara, we never know. Likewise we have no idea what's going on between him and Barbara. It's not the failure of the relationship to be romantic that's the problem; it's the failure of it to be anything. And the girls' different stories don't go anywhere either.
The tracking shots through the labyrinth of alleyways - a laboured metaphor for Mary's mind, one dimly senses - have been compared to Roeg's Don't Look Now, but the comparison does that masterpiece a disservice. The Venice-set film it's closer to is The Comfort of Strangers, another technically competent movie that never got to the point.
The handheld camerawork (which may be dizzying for some) and the sound design, including dialogue that perfectly reproduces the rhythms of everyday speech, certainly make for verisimilitude and the acting is fab. But it's a film in which something always seems to be about to happen but, for all the visual and aural busy-ness, never does.
Cast: Colin Firth, Catherine Keener, Hope Davis, Willa Holland, Perla Haney-Jardine
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Running time: 94 mins
Rating: M (offensive language)