A Woman In Winter Review
I wasn't going to mention Last Year In Marienbad during the course of this review. Having done a search through my own directory of reviews, I've already mentioned it four times in other pieces, including, inexplicably, in one for Hello Kitty Becomes A Princess and I did fear that the impression might be given that I had never actually seen another French film. Or that my knowledge of film was sufficiently limited as to be unable to turn anywhere else when faced with a dreamily difficult film that deliberately layers time and storytelling. But then listening to the commentary for A Woman In Winter, director Richard Jobson - yes, that Richard Jobson of The Skids, marriage to Mariella Frostrup and The Clothes Show - says that this film was his Last Year In Marienbad and mentioning Resnais and Robbe-Grillet's became sadly inescapable.
There are two ways to work with a film like A Woman In Winter. One is to describe the film in depth in a rather hopeful attempt to find reason in its balance between wonderful visuals and slow storytelling while the other is to briefly outline the story in acknowledgement of the place that it takes behind a beautiful staging of it onscreen. I am going to take the latter path. A Woman In Winter stars Jamie Sives as Michael, a physicist working at Edinburgh Observatory where he is studying a distant star. On a night away from work, he meets the mysterious Caroline (Julie Gayet) at the cinema but they do little more than simply pass in the night. The next day, he sees her again and approaches her for coffee. Back at his apartment, she notices he is a published author but his book, a theory on the interaction of parallel universes in altered timelines that co-exist, was dismissed as being based on little more than assumptions. Meanwhile, the star continues to fade and Michael, as well as searching for answers in deepest space, looks also to solve the riddle that is Caroline, a woman who appears not to exist while she is not with him.
As well his mentioning of Marienbad, Richard Jobson also talks about A Woman In Winter being a film to show the beauty in the Scottish city of Edinburgh. In this, he's succeeded. A Woman In Winter does look wonderful with it having the structure of an Anton Corbijn video - almost each and every frame could be removed from the film to work equally well as a still image. Edinburgh, even in being lit by streetlamps and the taillights of taxis, looks bustling, beautiful and, in spite of the wintry setting, warm and welcoming. Perhaps less so in the dull blue light of Michael's apartment or against the steel-and-concrete of the building where Michael works but the scenes snatched in alleyways, the city's backyards and cosy coffee shops are much, much more than the city council could have hoped for. As an advertisement for Edinburgh, cobbled lanes and all, it's a wonder. Less so, though, when taken as a film.
There is the impression, felt stronger as the film goes on, that all of this is window-dressing on a slim tale, one that's stretched very thin over a running time of almost two hours. The mystery of Caroline doesn't so much deepen as tread into shallower waters as Michael explains his schizophrenic universe theory. When psychiatrist Dr Hunt (Brian Cox) explains how he treated Caroline many years before, but explains how she was older then and had a daughter, what little mystery there is evaporates as clearly as water on a warm day. In between, we have many - far too many - shots of Michael looking very confused while the city turns around him, langourous gaps in conversations and an avoidance of the obvious. Why doesn't Michael simply follow Caroline home from his apartment? Why don't they simply talk? It takes them nearly an hour to have a straightforward conversation but the closer they come to finding out about one another, the film diverts them with yet more mystery - a speeding taxi, a carnival and a pregnancy - but it's all so very obvious at the same time.
In spite of all that, the first eighty minutes or so are gripping, largely because it is such a beautiful film to watch. A Woman In Winter has a wistful feel to its drama, which is quiet and chilly and would be so very much less had it not had the wonderful backdrop of Edinburgh to depend upon. With a score from Vincent Watts that's the equal of Jobson's visuals in making the film something of a mood piece, A Woman In Winter would have made for a much better film had Jobson found a willingness to trim it. As it panics in its search for a suitable ending, A Woman In Winter doesn't only become very obvious and laboured in its dealing with its meaning but actually becomes quite a dreary film to watch, something that one couldn't have imagined in the the film's stunning first hour. That's probably A Woman In Winter's greatest fault, that it goes from being a rather dull but astonishingly beautiful film to one that looks merely alright. But for those eighty minutes it is simply gorgeous, capturing that thought we all have when we see something to wonder at and wish that we could capture every detail of it to watch again. Well, A Woman In Winter does just that with a snow-flecked Edinburgh and with the exception of the balmy summer evening in Gregory's Girl, Scotland has never looked more lovely. That's not quite enough to sustain a film, less so as it goes on, but for that first hour one is prepared to forgive A Woman In Winter all manner of faults for being such a treat for the eyes that it is.
Tartan have done a good job on A Woman In Winter, much as you might expect given my praising of the look of the film above. Taking the original digital video source, Tartan look to have left it largely untouched with the picture looking grainier than it might otherwise have done but not really looking out of place on a television screen. That might have been very different during the short run A Woman In Winter had in the cinema where, on a very big screen, the faults in his choice of medium would have been apparent but on a television, one pays them no mind. Actually, it probably looks better thanks to high-definition digital video with the film alternating between a fuzzy warmth indoors and a stark, grainy chill outside. There are no faults on the print - like Sheitan, it may well have come direct from a digital source - and though there are moments when one can see the limitations of the budget with many shots taken quickly in everyday surroundings, more often than not the film and this DVD make it look to be a more considerable production than it is.
The audio tracks are the usual Tartan options, being DD2.0, DD5.1 and DTS with the best thing that one can say about it being that one doesn't notice it after a time. Although, to be fair, that is one being very complementary about the disc. There isn't a great deal of dialogue in A Woman In Winter but there are many moments when one only hears the noise of the city or the quiet in Michael's flat. The clarity of the soundtrack and the lack of noise go far in making it such an enjoyable listen. Or non-listen in the very quietest moments. There are English subtitles.
As befits a man who once sang, "Out of concealment / Blank and stark eyed / Why so uncertain this culture deceives / Prophesised, brainwashed, tomorrow's demise", Richard Jobson is not short of things to say. Although it is worth saying that while he's not afraid of uttering complete nonsense, much as he was in The Skids, he makes a good deal more sense now than then. Once past the bit of chatter about Last Year In Marienbad, Jobson enjoys his time on the Commentary and though he does pause very occasionally, he seems to do so only when he needs to catch up with the events in the film so to negotiate his next step. What Jobson doesn't really do is to explain the film so if you click on this hoping for a clarification of events, you will be disappointed. But what he does do well is to describe the making of the film, including, at one point, a plan to make it in Paris with French dialogue, and to talk about his use of Edinburgh as a backdrop. It's an interesting listen and never dull and is a much appreciated bonus on his disc.
Commentary aside, there's a rather ordinary Making Of A Woman In Winter (22m45s) that features interviews with writer/director Jobson, producer Chris Atkins and actors Jamie Sives, Brian Cox and Julie Gayet. On their own, these would have been fine and might well have been better had they been presented without being interrupted by behind-the-scenes footage but such is the problem with this feature. The clips from the film are better and are more appreciated but are too few to matter, leaving too much of Jobson on the set and pointless shots of cameras and cast being moved into place. Finally, there is a music video by Arab Strap (3m12s).