Review: ‘A Woman in Winter’

Unstinting in ambition but impoverished in realization, "A Woman in Winter" is so intent on pushing the boundaries of regular British cinema that it forgets to take its audience along. Laudable attempt by Scottish writer-helmer Richard Jobson to create a slice of metaphysical cinema owes its roots more to French and East Asian cinema than to U.K. miserabilism or sitcoms/romcoms.

Unstinting in ambition but impoverished in realization, “A Woman in Winter” is so intent on pushing the boundaries of regular British cinema that it forgets to take its audience along. Laudable attempt by Scottish writer-helmer Richard Jobson to create a slice of metaphysical cinema — Edinburgh astronomer falls for mysterious Gallic looker — owes its roots more to French and East Asian cinema than to U.K. miserabilism or sitcoms/romcoms. But despite moments of arresting beauty, pic is harnessed to a script without a center. Beyond scattered fest dates, this lady will feel the B.O. cold.

Free-flow, dreamy style is more like Jobson’s striking debut film, the semi-autobiographical “16 Years of Alcohol” (2003), than his sophomore production, lame Scottish martial artser “The Purifiers” (2004). And like “Alcohol,” the movie is a fine advertisement for widescreen digital lensing, which in the 35mm transfer caught looked scrumptious on the bigscreen. Wintry blues and warm oranges are both saturated, and only some blurry edges in medium and long shots betray the pic’s electronic origins.

Opening follows a beautiful young woman (Julie Gayet), as she throws herself off a bridge in a state of delirium. Cut to scruffy Scottish physics prof, Michael Seraph (Jamie Sives), author of a book called “The Last Surprise,” whose eyes then meet same woman, Caroline, after the screening of a French art movie.

Michael is a specialist in quantum cosmology, and has a pet theory that the universe is “schizophrenic” — that there are parallel versions of our world and we can move through various time lines. His boss at a futuristic-looking observatory, David (Jason Flemyng), supports him; a colleague, Marianne (Susan Lynch, from “Alcohol”), thinks he’s weird.

Michael and Caroline later bump into each other at a music store, and she all but invites herself back to his apartment. She speaks like a French art-movie character: “I feel like une femme en hiver (a woman in winter). There’s no escape.” Well, oui.

The mystery of who exactly Caroline is deepens when a doctor, Hunt (Brian Cox), says he once treated a “Caroline” but she was much older. She’s also starting to spook Michael out with her sudden disappearances and re-appearances — though for her, there’s no mystery: “There’s just me. Isn’t that enough?”

Not, unfortunately, for a 100-minute movie, which fails to develop either the idea of parallel worlds or the central relationship. Final half-hour stretches the thin material beyond breaking point.

Despite some weaknesses, “Alcohol” seemed to benefit from Jobson having first worked out his ideas in the original novel. “Woman,” which is an original script, feels like a first draft. With its sumptuous photography, conjuring up an Edinburgh wonderland rarely seen on film, and ethereal score (piano, high suspended strings), film would have made a nicely atmospheric 30-minute short.

Both leads are OK within the script’s limitations, and the photogenic Gayet, in her first English-language role, performs credibly. Other cast members are basically decoration. Production values are high on a reportedly very low budget.

A Woman in Winter

U.K.

Production

A Tartan release of a U.K. Film Council, Tartan Films presentation, in association with HanWay Films, of a Vestry Films, S2S production. (International sales: HanWay, London.) Produced by Chris Atkins, Richard Jobson, Hamish McAlpine. Executive producer, Paul Trijbits. Directed, written by Richard Jobson.

Crew

Camera (color, DV-to-35mm, widescreen), Simon Dennis; editor, Yannis Sakaridis; music, Vincent Watts; production designer, Mark Leese; costume designer, Francesca Oddi; sound (Dolby Digital), Becky Thomson; sound designer, Watts; associate producer, Douglas Milton; assistant director, Gerry Toomey. Reviewed at London Film Festival, Oct. 21, 2005. Running time: 100 MIN.

With

Jamie Sives, Julie Gayet, Jason Flemyng, Susan Lynch, Nicole Ansari Fox, Brian Cox, Natasha Watson, Michael Ansari Cox. (English, French dialogue)
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