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A Good Year – BBC prize, a charmless offensive

Good year - shame about the film

Good year - shame about the film

A Good YearRidley Scott

(BBC Prize Review)

Russell Crowe doesn’t do charm. It was perverse therefore for Ridley Scott to cast him in a film based upon Peter Mayle’s book of the same name. The book at best was a light, slight, quizzical account of the travails of a dropped out advertising executive, bemusing and bemused by, the French people of rural Provence where he and his wife pursued the ultimate middle class English fantasy – living an endless holiday in Provence.

Why Scott should have wanted a project of such minimal aspiration is beyond me. Charm was as high as it could get. Even John Thaw and Lindsay Duncan were unable to inject any dramatic interest in a tedious TV series. And they weren’t lumbered with poor old Russell with an execrable English accent redolent with the kind of contempt for the silly arse English that only a New Zealander can muster. Looking and sounding like a refugee from Three Men in a Boat but without wit or paddle, Crowe’s performance sinks this frail craft from the get go. To wrench any charm from this actually charmless story would require say a Hugh Grant or even Tom Hollander who is in the film in a minor part.

Transposed to the sharky end of city trading, Crowe’s Max Skinner controls whole markets and conjures millions with a raised eyebrow and an insufferably smug grin. It’s an achievement of sorts to traduce city traders but however shallow the environment it really can’t be quite as silly as Scott portrays it. We learn that Skinner was brought up by Uncle Henry, (a freewheeling Albert Finney, adequately avuncular) who taught him the real values he has so conspicuously rubbished in his ruthless city career. After Uncle Henry dies will-less, a series of nostalgic flashbacks fail to tell us quite what these values were, They appear to have something to do with making wine, cricket in the hall and enjoying lazy days in Provence. So you can see how it plays to middle class fantasists.

Screenplay writer Marc Klein seems to have lost the pleasing romantic touch he found with Serendipity, though a Grant or a Hollander might have gently teased more wry, ironic humour out of the script than Crowe’s twitchy eccentricities manage. The delightfully named Archie Panjadi as Skinner’s City Girl Friday strikes an effective edgy, sarcastic tone but she really has nothing to play off. Tom Hollander as Skinner’s lawyer and mate, if that isn’t an oxymoron, is as usual excellent but his characterless character is underwritten.

Amongst Scott’s unremittingly patronising ooh la la! French people of Provence a desultory love interest develops between Max and the supposedly fiery, independent, local waitress Fanny. These legendary hostile qualities are overcome by one evening out and shed-loads of smirking. What the hell happens to French women in English-speaking films? They all go la la. With the honourable exception of Julie Delpy in Linklater’s Before Sunset and Before Sunrise, they sound like English actresses with a bad French accent. (e.g. Emmanuelle Beart in Mission Impossible and Audrey Tautou in ). Perhaps it is the physicality of one’s own language. Certainly, though in that case Spanish, Penelope Cruz is a revelation in Volver, having seemed pretty but pallid in her English speaking films.

In the never less than well-heeled ethical desert of Max’s life, what passes for a moral dilemma appears in the form of Christie (Abbie Cornish) an unknown result of Henry’s passing liaison with a Californian vineyard guide. Will she counter claim on the estate? Will she recover from her sunburn? Will Max sell out Henry’s life- long vineyard manager Didier? Trust me, the heart sinks before the pulse has a chance to race.

But all’s well that ends. Even without the fatal miscasting, it is hard to believe there was ever enough juice in this story to get the squeezer out. This is one for Crowe fans and those whose paint has dried with nothing left to do.

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