David Jackson‘s feature debut, Winterlong is a low-key drama that has gripping moments, and beautiful, stark cinematography. Ultimately though it feels like an extended short film, without enough substance to really keep it afloat.
Uncommunicative, withdrawn teenager Julian (Harper Jackson) is abandoned by his mother and left with Francis, his estranged father (Francis Magee), who lives a solitary, almost feral life on the edge of a forest. Francis’ volatile temperament, and discomfort at the new situation, is placated by his girlfriend Carole (Carole Weyers) who embraces Julian’s presence and Francis’ emerging paternal side. When she goes away on tour in Europe, the father and son slowly begin building a bond, but an accident in the woods brings them to the attention of the authorities, and puts their future in jeopardy.
Magee is terrific here, oozing charisma in a rare leading role. Best known as the gruff but decent Night’s Watch recruiter in Game Of Thrones, here he plays a similar character, inhabiting the role of an ostensible misanthrope completely. His relationship with Carole is jarring at first, but thanks to the pair’s natural chemistry, any question of age difference dissipates quickly. Doon Mackichan is also a breath of fresh air as the busybody neighbour, and is both annoying and tragic. Crucially she feels like a real person, and her idiosyncrasies, while incredibly irritating, all ring true.
Jackson excels at small character moments, but as a whole Winterlong doesn’t hold together that well. The plot itself is solid, but too often doesn’t pull the story beats together well enough. Some of the jarring editing would be understandable if it meant the film was cutting to the chase, but there is no chase to cut to. The whole film is a meandering, slice of life drama that for some reason cuts out a lot of the moments that would make it more dramatic, and also allow us to get invested in the characters. Why does the mum leave? How does Julian get enrolled at school? How does Carole find them again? What’s with all the guns? These loose ends could have been interesting character moments, but the film just moves on without looking back. For a drama where nothing much happens, it’s surprisingly lightweight and feels too rushed for the audience to really connect with.
While Harper Jackson isn’t bad as Julian, a lot of his characterisation would make a lot more sense (and carry a lot more emotional weight) if he was played by a child actor. The adults already talk to him like a child – even Carole, who is presumably only a few years his senior – and this would explain his actions later in the film. I thought he was heading into Badlands territory, suggesting a darker side to the character, but instead he’s just being dangerously stupid. His relationship with his would-be girlfriend is also rushed and overly simplistic. Too often characters act the way they do just because it’s in the script, and that’s especially true of these scenes, which serve as naïve wish fulfilment rather than a realistic depiction of teenage romance.
For a debut, Winterlong has definite potential. It’s beautifully shot, with an affecting score and some nicely observed scenes of human connection, especially those between Magee and Mackichan, which are rife with social awkwardness. However, as with too much of the story, this subplot peters out without resolution, making the film a frustrating watch. Some scenes stand out, but the film doesn’t hold together as a whole and the ending, which aims for heartwarming, just doesn’t feel earned.
Winterlong comes to select UK cinemas on 29th March.