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A Woman In Winter
cast: Jamie Sives, Julie Gayet, Jason Flemying, Susan Lynch, and Brian Cox

director: Richard Jobson

96 minutes (12) 2005
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Tartan DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 4/10
reviewed by Paul Higson
Films often steal their titles from songs but few songs actually get adapted into a feature film. Director Richard Jobson, former lead singer of The Skids who put The Woman In Winter out as an A-Side in 1981, does not see it that way though. The story came first as a short fiction, influenced by his surroundings in late 1970s' Edinburgh, a story of, what is it, two ghosts unaware of the other's otherworldly status. It is one of a number of explanatory options hinted at in the director's commentary. It's recommendable you move directly to the commentary as the viewing experience can be painful without it. This is not because the film needs explanation but that it certainly requires the amiable Jobson's paradoxically earnest chatter to prevent sleep or irritation, the two readier reactions the film is likely to invoke in the viewer.

Jamie Sives is Paul, an expert in the field of quantum cosmology. He is the "golden boy theoretical astrophysicist" as colleague Marianne (Susan Lynch) puts it. She is somewhat put out by his joining the department of astrophysics in Edinburgh as his introduction to the programme has given a drastic about turn to the research. Whereas previously they had been conducting exciting logistical work she is now saddened to see the entire team engaged in nonsense that could never be proven. The team have a star ready to go supernova under observation but the signal readings on it contradict their every understanding of "how a star like this should behave." The brilliant young brain brings reputation enough for the department head, David, who is ready to sanction team and time to any silly sod notion Paul comes up with. Jason Flemying plays David, a character originally written for someone considerably older, but awarded to an actor seen as something of a good luck charm in the film community, bringing mischief, cheer and charm to sets (his other half is Lena Headey... you've got to hate him).

The casting is one of many rash concessions made by Jobson, and reminds us how Flemying was similarly miscast as the popular Professor Quatermass for the BBC's live transmission of The Quatermass Experiment in the same year. Sives so seemingly solid in To The Ends Of The Earth here looks nonplussed when not occasionally slightly goosed. In between lectures the dullard takes a date to the Cameo for a monumentally stultifying art-house flick and shops in the original Fopp store. In the first location he sees a pretty blonde French girl, Caroline (Julie Gayet), and seeing her again at the second he chats her up, in his own inimitable way. They talk crap, or as Jobson describes it, "not natural dialogue" but a language more 'lyrical'. His colourless leads subsist on their 'interior lives' and we thank them for keeping it to themselves. Sex is the portal to a whole new world (or universe) of fractured weirdosity. The bringing of information from the imploding star is altering reality or joining realities, spiking one universe into the neighbouring. Quantum physics gives Jobson his desired schizophrenic universe where the past and present of parallel timelines can interfere with each other.

DOP Simon Dennis beautifully renders the film; capturing a crisp, cool Edinburgh winter. The digital imagery is intrinsically pure, generally caught in fixed frames. Camera movement is moderate and for the most part inviting. Occasionally the film picks up speed to portray the splintering state of his misunderstanding of what is happening to him. This is more so an excuse jaunty experiments with the cameras, achieved by cranking them up at five and seven frames per second, and switching between the results in the editing. Dennis and Jobson do produce some amazing images, such as in the opening with the snow falling against a canvas of black. Towards the end, when Paul is struck by a vehicle, the camera finds him from above presenting him still and prone on the cobbled ground, the stones a blue grey to his right, palely lit to his left. The film then cuts to a 360 pan of Paul, his body floating, double exposed with the reversed slow motion footage of the fireworks display now un-announcing the New Year he tasted seconds only of. In another impressively put together sequence, Jobson produces a montage of new shots from visited scenes and locations, a homage to Roeg and Cammell to whom he is confessedly enamoured.

It is easy to discount Jobson as art fool and lucky sod most pretentious on high, but the commentary shows him to be a likeable and misguided. He is certainly no idiot. It is possibly because everything has, by measure, gone his way, with several rewarding careers within the entertainments milieu from singer-lyricist to male model to television presenter to filmmaker, that he acknowledges is luckiness and by now his comfortable in the expectation for that luck to prevail. He does not set himself as a great mind but is in awe of others he perceives as genii. He's an honest injun and a regular Joe. He loves art house and wants to emulate it but fails to understand that the most notable examples of it come about as a result of core originality.

A Woman In Winter is a Kafkaesque adventure with Paul its Josef K muddling through several locations trying to make sense of his nightmare; a deserving fate for someone who's paid profession is to hide behind the indeterminable. The film has few characters and none of them ring true. The first half hour is particularly awful. It is a film with silences in which you urge the characters to talk and once they do you want them only to shut up again. Jobson holds important the casting of players who understand the transcendental power of the film medium, getting away from theatrical disciplines and addressing something inner and making it some of it surface. He wants performers who will not become overwrought by the logic of the 'binary world'. The real world retains a necessary presence though, even when other possibilities are apparent, it is all that we are certain that we have and keep our feet to. Jobson suffers from ideas beyond his ken. There are a few nice ideas like having the star implode at the moment Edinburgh enters a New Year. Brian Cox is revealed in the commentary to have given his considerable services for free. Jason Flemying is always a welcome presence but is wrong for this role and Susan Lynch looks cross and baffled in her every shot, and is laden with make-up that gives her the appearance of a very angry Aunt Sally.

The film is on a go-slow. The gulf between Jobson's believed creativity and the entertainment value in the end product is enormous. The director's commentary importantly improves the DVD package. Jobson is an odd creature, a bloke and a geek in one, intelligent but naïve, normal but split. You want to like the film more for his sake but are unable to. The concessions are in areas technical, scripted, in the casting and location. His failure to resist some ideas and actions are perhaps grounded in friendships. He will cast people because he likes them rather than the fact they are suitable and good for the film and he acts on ideas simply because they come to him without exploring whether they are appropriate to an effectively told film. The best lines are likely to have been stolen from elsewhere: "meaning - is only the joint product of other evidence available to those who communicate" (from the film) and "Time is only nature's way of preventing everything happening at once" (from the commentary). They are there as 'clues' to the many possible interpretations on the story.

Jobson is chuffed with the clues in the film stabbing a finger at them in the commentary. Tellingly they are less like clues and more accurately references to the work of others, from Lewis Carroll to Alan Resnais. Neither do they need pointing out to us, that they are so embarrassingly obvious, be it as 'clues' or tributes. If this was a murder mystery the killer would be holding a smoking gun and wearing an 'I did it' T-shirt. The film's worrying reminds one more of imponderable and mediocre films like Friendship's Death or a mediocre fantasy romance of the ilk of Starcrossed (1985). The story of its making is superior to the film, done through the commentary and an additional 23-minute featurette. We learn that within the industry there are "mate's rates" but the estimated CGI budget given by one major London-based effects house was still the entire budget of the finished film. Jobson rightly applauds the smaller outfit contracted in to provide the work, some of it incredibly subtle like the exterior of the City Observatory, achieved with After Effects and Adobe software or the simple inscription on a stone marking in Roman numerals the year 2008, setting the story in the future. This film alone would put me off seeing Jobson's first two feature films, 16 Years Of Alcohol and The Purifiers, but Jobson the man is likely to always lead me to want to give him a break and I am curious about those earlier works.
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