Toronto International Film Festival

TORONTO--Prolific English filmmaker Michael Winterbottom, whose recent output has run the gamut from "A Mighty Heart" to "Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story" to the x-rated "9 Songs," continues to explore his versatility with "Genova," a brittle psychological drama about a father and his two daughters coping with tragedy.

With Italy providing an evocative backdrop, not to mention an unsettling vibe that intentionally evokes Nicolas Roeg's 1973 classic, "Don't Look Now," the tautly-choreographed, effectively acted film has a generally downbeat tone.

A well-cast Colin Firth plays the ex-pat British father of two daughters living in Chicago who accepts a job teaching in Genoa for a year, hoping the distance will help them come to terms with the death of his wife and the girls' mother (Hope Davis), who was killed in a car crash.

But the change of scenery only serves to intensify the unspoken feelings of loss and guilt, prompting his daughters to act out in different ways.

While 16-year-old Kelly (Willa Holland) takes to running with boys she meets on the beach, 10-year-old Mary (Perla Haney-Jardine) is convinced her mother's ghost has returned to comfort her.

Helping them to settle in, meanwhile, is Barbara (played by the always welcome Katherine Keener) a colleague at the university and an old friend of Firth's who clearly still harbors some unresolved feelings for him.

Winterbottom, who co-wrote the spare script with Laurence Coriat ("Wonderland"), keeps things uncomfortably off-kilter in the unfamiliar surroundings.

There's a chill of dread hanging over every narrow alleyway and a hint of potential menace in every passer-by and turning vehicle preventing both the characters and the audience from ever completely letting down their guard.

Effectively heightening that foreboding atmosphere is cinematographer and frequent Winterbottom collaborator Marcel Zyskind and composer Melissa Parmenter, whose string-laden score quietly accentuates the lingering grief.

Production companies: Film Four, UK Film Council, Aramid Entertainment, Hanway Films, Revolution Films.
Cast: Colin Firth, Catherine Keener, Willa Holland, Perla Haney Jardine, Hope Davis.
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Screenwriters: Laurence Coriat, Michael Winterbottom
Executive producers: Tessa Ross, Simon Fawcett
Producer: Andrew Eaton
Director of photography: Marcel Zyskind
Production designer: Mark Digby
Music: Melissa Parmenter
Costume designer:
Editor: Paul Monaghan, Michael Winterbottom
Sales Agent: Hanway Films
Not Yet Rated, 94 minutes.