American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Winter in Scotland is as muted as a wake. The country's so far north, the sun is slow to rise and early to set, and a day can be blindingly bright or always seem like twilight. “The Winter Guest” follows four sets of characters through a day in a Scottish village, and its purpose is not to draw a lesson or tell a story, but to evoke a mood. To see this film is to spend a day in a village near St. Andrews, and with a shock I realized I had once lingered for an afternoon in this village, or one much like it--in August, when the days were long and the trees were green.
Everything is different in winter. The people disappear inside and count on one another. The film opens with a well-coifed woman in her 60s, in a fur coat, making her way across a field in bitter cold. This is Elspeth (Phyllida Law), and she is on her way to the house of her daughter Frances (Emma Thompson). She fears losing her. Frances' husband has died, and she has retreated into an angry silence beyond mourning. Perhaps she will leave Scotland and move away with her teenage son Alex (Gary Hollywood).
Alex has an admirer. Her name is Nita (Arlene Cockburn), and she has a crush on him. Early on the day of the film she ambushes him with a snowball, and at first they scuffle but then they begin to talk, and by the end of the day they will be boyfriend and girlfriend, with all the uncertainty that means at their age.
There are two boys walking by the frozen sea. It is a schoolday, but they have stayed away, and no one will look for them here. They are Sam (Douglas Murphy) and Tom (Sean Biggerstaff), and the emptiness of the town and the quiet of the weekday have made them a little more serious than they planned; they look about 12 or 13, and tentatively talk about more serious things than they would have six months ago.