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REVIEW By Paul Byrnes, November 23, 2005
Father and sons battle with grief and each other in this finely observed tale.
Anthony LaPaglia as Jim Winters.

It used to be that the man who didn't say much in a Hollywood movie was the one to watch. Westerns made silence a virtue because it wasn't what a man said, but what he did, that made him what he was. That idea went out with the western, although Clint Eastwood never gave in. (If there's a star with fewer lines of dialogue in his career, he'd have to have four legs).

Anthony LaPaglia has no difficulty with dialogue but Winter Solstice offers him a great role, and a whole lot of nothing to say. The difference is that it's no longer portrayed as a virtue. The three Winters boys, a father and two sons, are marooned on an island of grief where words won't help. What was once manly is now just an affliction.

They are men without women, a situation that the western found not just tolerable, but desirable. In a house in New Jersey, however, it's just the source of endless sadness.

We do not know for a long while what happened to Mrs Winters, whether she died or just left. All we see are the symptoms of her loss. Jim Winters (LaPaglia) is a landscape gardener, with a tidy clapboard house in a quiet neighbourhood. Elder son Gabe (Aaron Stanford) has a job packing vegetables. The younger boy Pete (Mark Webber) is still in senior high and going nowhere. He gets thrown out of class a lot, and annoys his father and brother with his sullen moods.

He has a hearing problem but that is not it. Summoned to the school, not for the first time, his father hears from his exasperated teachers. "There's nothing wrong with Pete, but there's no telling when he will try and when he won't."

Jim's response is to haul his son off the basketball court and yell at him, the first time we hear him raise his voice. His manner is usually deliberately quiet, as though he's keeping a lid on things. When Gabe announces that he has decided to move to Florida to work on a boat, the lid comes off. We don't yet know why, but it's clear that there isn't much holding the Winters' house together. Gabe is even willing to leave behind his longstanding girlfriend Stacey (Michelle Monaghan), a sweet girl who's a good thing in his life.

The women in the film are not much good with words either. Allison Janney (C.J. from The West Wing) moves in down the block and borrows a hand trolley from Jim Winters. She's Molly, a shy woman who's trying to remain open and hopeful after some unspoken loss. She and Jim can see a hurt in each other and that's enough to break the ice.

The film is a debut feature for Josh Sternfeld, and he does a fine job, with well-observed characters and a strong sense of reality. The film's pleasures are like those of slow food. It takes a while to reveal the complexity and subtlety, but the rewards are there. LaPaglia is a pleasure to watch because the role suits his great capacity for stillness. The same quality was visible in the detective he played in Ray Lawrence's Lantana. Jim Winters is more bottled up, but LaPaglia makes his silence eloquent.

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