British Cinema – Genova (2008)

Genova, 2008.

Directed by Michael Winterbottom.
Starring Colin Firth, Catherine Keener, Willa Holland, and Perla Haney-Jardine.


A haunting, eerie journey to a place where souls stir and hearts go to mend themselves, Genova is the dark, brooding voyage of discovery for one family, torn apart by tragedy.

Acclaimed British director Michael Winterbottom continues to demonstrate his ability to shift effortlessly between genres with Genova, a drama about a family’s efforts to deal with grief and loss after the mother is killed in a road traffic accident. Colin Firth stars as Joe, a British college professor who decides to move to the Italian city of Genoa (Genova in Italian) with his two American daughters, 16 year old Kelly (Holland) and 10 year old Mary (Haney-Jardine), hoping it will help to aid their recovery from the tragic loss.

Joe takes up a university teaching position alongside old flame Barbara (Keener), while arranging piano lessons to occupy his daughters as they wait for school to start. Barbara gets close to the family to help with their transition (and, undoubtedly, because of her ongoing romantic interest in Joe) showing them around the winding alleyways, beaches and countryside of the beautiful Italian city. However, once Joe starts work we begin to see how each family member looks to deal with their emotions on a personal level. Joe immerses himself into his teaching, striking up a friendship with an Italian student who also appears keen for his affections, while oldest daughter Kelly begins to explore the city and her emerging sexual identity.

For me, the most interesting strand of the film is that of youngest daughter Mary, who feels responsible for the accident and through this guilt, begins to envision an image of her mother. The performance of young actress Perla Haney-Jardine is entirely convincing and a stand-out among the cast, while the addition of a ‘supernatural’ element helps to differentiate the film from a typical drama. Couple this with the claustrophobic setting and slow, simmering pace and it is easy to draw comparisons with Nicolas Roeg’s classic supernatural thriller Don’t Look Now (1971). However, despite the sense of foreboding that runs through-out the streets of the city, Genova leaves the viewer with optimism for the family’s future rather than building towards any kind of shocking or downbeat conclusion.

Unlike much of the prolific Winterbottom’s back catalogue – such as Welcome to Sarajevo (1997), In This World (2002), 9 Songs (2004), The Road to Guantanamo (2006), and A Mighty Heart (2007), all of which deal with controversial themes – Genova is a safe and straight-forward character-driven film about coping with bereavement, and benefits greatly from convincing performances all round. The cinematography once again employs Winterbottom’s trademark documentary style and is exceptional through-out, making great use of the fantastic locations to draw the viewer into the family’s world. Rather than being plot-heavy, Genova serves as a subtle and intimate observational piece and – while far from earth-shattering – the film is certainly an interesting effort, and one that successfully manages to stray from the more clichéd aspects of the genre.

Gary Collinson