Bride of the Wind
2001, R, 99 min. Directed by Bruce Beresford. Starring Jonathan Pryce, Sarah Wynter, Vincent Perez, Simon Verhoeven, Dagmar Schwarz, Gregor Seberg.
REVIEWED By Marrit Ingman, Fri., Aug. 10, 2001
Like the most recent Merchant-Ivory joint The Golden Bowl, this tony biopic begins by backdropping its characters -- hot-tempered, cliquish European intellectuals -- against a whirlwind of sepia stock footage depicting the world's headlong rush into modernity. Director Beresford, noted for his prestige period dramas (1991's Black Robe), pulls off another neat visual trick: Star Wynter strolls seamlessly into the monochrome frame, her red ball gown standing out like a splash on a canvas, and steps through a door into a scene of Viennese parlor society, circa 1902. Wynter plays Alma Mahler, a feisty and mercurial free spirit and the film's unblinking focus. Alma becomes the wife of expatriate composer Gustav Mahler (Pryce), who's become a darling of the drawing-room crowd by dint of conducting the Vienna Opera. Yet Mahler broods at home, chafes at conducting musicians who “resist change,” and insists that Alma surrender her own musical ambitions. The story follows Alma's evolution -- from a coquette into a lover, into a wife and mother, and finally into a passionate widow, variously linked with or married to an assortment of influential artists: bohemian painter Oscar Kokoschka (Perez); Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius (Simon Verhoeven); and playwright, poet, and novelist Franz Werfel (Gregor Seberg). Obviously, Beresford and his screenwriter, Marilyn Levy, have a wealth of compelling material at their disposal. But somehow the film doesn't quite cohere; it's hobbled by its awkward exposition, with salient facts about the characters' lives (such as Mahler's conversion to Catholicism) conveyed by truncated, throwaway scenes of clumsy dialogue. (Repeatedly, the plot stands still so that Pryce can utter some of Mahler's more famous remarks -- about being a “thrice homeless” Jew and about tradition being “laziness” -- in scenes with no other purpose.) Levy makes her screenwriting debut here, and she seems challenged by the problem of making her characters' motives and feelings dramatically apparent. At times, the filmmakers' focus on Alma's life and passions seems a bit too narrow, giving the story more breadth than depth (World War I, for example, is a comparatively minor event). Nor is it entirely clear from the film why Alma inspires such mad love among her various suitors; Wynter (whose recent résumé includes flops like The 6th Day and Lost Souls) is a pleasant actress, but she's probably too inexperienced to inhabit such a intriguing character and carry the film, even with a considerable assist from Pryce (who is, on the other hand, perfectly cast, with his weatherbeaten face and quiet gravity). On the plus side, Beresford delivers a typically sumptuous visual package, with longtime collaborator Peter James as his cinematographer. And Beresford's passion for opera is certainly well documented (he's directed several productions for the stage), so the film will probably have a built-in appeal for fans, as well. Soprano Renée Fleming makes a special appearance, performing one of Alma's compositions.