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A Price Above Rubies

(Boaz Yakin, USA, 1998)


 


Poor Sonia (Renee Zellweger). She has made herself the quiet, good, dutiful Jewish wife and mother in the shadow of her wise husband, Mendel (Glenn Fitzgerald). But Sonia hides a talent for discerning and marketing fine jewellery – and she is also keeping a tight lid on what she calls the "fire" of her erotic desires. The more that Sonia discovers herself and her potentialities, the more she inexorably moves beyond the confines of her rigidly defined lifestyle. This is the pathos milked by Boaz Yakin's A Price Above Rubies.

For a brief time, Sonia's dalliance with the crooked holy man Sender (Christopher Eccleston) adds an intrigue and complexity to the film which recalls Wayne Wang's splendid Eat a Bowl of Tea (1989). Sender is a straightforward type: he knows what he wants from Sonia. But, by allowing her to run his jewellery business, he also gives her a taste of independence and freedom.

From Sonia's viewpoint, however, Sender's lust amounts to an average of four unfulfilling thrusts up against the nearest wall. From the moment that she declares Sender "the ugliest of all men", he is for all intents and purposes the one-dimensional villain of this piece. The film sets itself no option other than to conjure for its feisty heroine a 'good' man, Ramon (Allen Payne) – an unreal fantasy figure who makes sweet love, carves beautiful sculpture, and even supports his widowed mom.

The movie's simple-mindedness spills over into the presentation of its key issue – Jewish spirituality. Via Sonia, Yakin slams the patriarchal bias of this religion. The devout chaps we glimpse are obsessive, withdrawn, unable to deal with any aspect of female sexuality. One lovely scene (reminiscent of Isaac Bashevis Singer's fiction) reconciles, for a fleeting moment, the intensity of belief with the power of love, in its depiction of the last moments of an old couple. But the rest of the story presents only a schematic stand-off between male and female principles.

A Price Above Rubies is a big disappointment coming after Yakin's directorial debut, Fresh (1994). At least he has tried, in every respect, to tackle something different – swapping a streetwise, young black male's perspective for Sonia's spiritual and sexual malaise. Yakin unfortunately refuses himself the recourse to full-blooded melodrama, and the result is pale, claustrophobic, bloodless. Even Yakin's attempts at adding a little magic-realist fuel – in the form of a young boy from Sonia's past and an ultra-wise bag lady who keeps passing by – fail to spark any fire.

The acting is also a problem. Zellweger has the busiest face in movies. Her brows, eyes, lips and cheeks are drawn into a constant scherzo of glaring, pouting and blushing. She is a naturally appealing screen presence (as Jerry Maguire [1996] showed) but she needs firm direction – and Yakin certainly does not give it to her here. Perhaps aiming for a more flowing naturalism than informed his first film, Yakin has made A Price Above Rubies too often dull, unfocused and inexpressive.

MORE Yakin: Uptown Girls, Remember the Titans

© Adrian Martin December 1998


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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