Classy, but middlebrow, Caroline Link’s A Year Ago in Winter is a respectable effort in every meaning of the word. It’s a film that’s been so thoroughly polished that it scarcely seems possible that it could emit the smallest bit of emotional surprise, yet despite its many calculations and unfailing classiness, it manages to finally sell its story of grief relief. Picking up a year after the golden child of an upper-class Munich household has killed himself, the script tracks the underlying feelings that are dredged up when a painter is commissioned to do a portrait of the dead child and his older sister.
Well-played by Karoline Herfurth, older sister Lilli becomes the movie’s emotional center. Content for years to conform to her parents’ desires, she finds herself becoming more assertive about her own needs when she befriends the closeted portrait artist. As the two benefit from getting to know each other better, the family collectively comes to terms with the fact that they scarcely knew their lost loved one. It’s a setup that sounds trite, but somehow Link manages to infuse it with some real power by the film’s end, even if she often seems more concerned with the lavish set design than the characters’ souls.