Skip to main content

So the house is falling apart and the vineyard makes undrinkable wine. Excellent.

A Good Year
(2006)

(SPOILERS) I oughtn’t really to like A Good Year. And, kind of, I don’t. But I kind of do too. Despite entirely floundering on a number of levels that should entirely incapacitate it on the starting line, it’s probably the most likeable, personable movie Ridley Scott has made in the past two decades. Which doesn’t make it very good, but it’s very evident he actually had something invested in what he was making for a change.


Top of the list of things that don’t work – since he’s in almost every scene – is Russell Crowe playing, effectively, Hugh Grant. If Hugh Grant had ever played a yuppie in the big city needing to discover his softer side via a sojourn in the French countryside. Crowe’s got the caricature of a toff accent down sufficiently, but he just isn’t the chinless cad type, and he isn’t a master of light comedy either, no matter how many times he brushes his hands through his floppy fringe in an approximation Oor Hughie. 


He’s a particular strain in the early stages of the picture, strutting the brokerage floor calling his staff "lab rats" or attempting casual pratfalls; it’s a horridly affected performance at the outset. However, transition him into a romance with Marion Cotillard, and he finds his footing. Which means the second part of the film – and typically of Ridley, it’s a two-hour fifteen-minute movie that should be at least an hour shorter – is a much more amenable, approachable experience.


The other big problem, which again sort of drops away when the romance becomes the focus, is that there’s a reason Scott hadn’t done a comedy before (Thelma & Louise doesn’t count); he’s got zero comic timing. Sure, he can handle a laugh when it derives from a dramatic situation (Thelma & Louise can hold its hand up here), but one only has to look at his execution of comic hijinks, such as Max Skinner (Crowe) racing round and round a village fountain in a smart car like he’s auditioning for Benny Hill, to realise he’s utterly clueless. Tellingly, Ridders hasn’t returned to the genre since, although it might have something to do with A Good Year bombing (it barely made back its budget).


It was that rarity for Scott: a project he initiated, having lived in Provence for fifteen years at that point (so it must now be a quarter of a century, if he’s still in residence) and wanting to make a movie there (the entire thing was filmed eight minutes of his house, so goes the boast). He went to Peter Mayle, whose A Year in Provence had met with considerable success, spawning a TV series starring John Thaw; Mayle ended up turning the idea into a novel rather than a screenplay, one that diverged from what Scott wanted. So Scott harnessed Marc Klein to refashion the essentials. 


There are rocky elements from the off, notably the intrusive flashbacks to Albert Finney’s Uncle Henry and an endlessly precocious Freddie Highmore as the young Max; Max spent many of his summers with Henry, who has recently expired and left his property to him. It’s nice to see Finney in a Scott movie again (the last was his first, The Duellists), and he’s on effortlessly iconic form as the kind of figure who would stay with you throughout your life, no matter how distant you become, but the device itself never feels less than bodge (at one stage in the writing, Henry was planned as a ghost speaking to the present-day Max). There’s also an annoyingly affirmative retrieved memory device, linking Max’s childhood to his present; Scott evidently thought it was such a great idea, he used it again for Robin Hood. And yet, the longer you stay with the director’s detour from his accustomed genre, the more his evident love of the countryside (gorgeously photographed by Phillipe Le Sourd) rubs off on you, as it does Max. 


It helps that the supporting cast are note perfect. On the Gallic side, there’s Didier Bourdon as the estate’s idiosyncratic winemaker and Isabelle Candelier as his frisky wife (there’s only five years between Crowe and Bourdon, although there’s evidently supposed to be many more). Cotillard is perfect as the irresistible, uncatchable Fanny, and Abbie Cornish very appealing as Max’s illegitimate sibling Christie, who importunely shows up to put a potential spanner in Max’s plans for a quick sale of the chateau and vineyard. 


Best of all is Tom Hollander as Max’s estate agent chum Charlie, a scene-stealing reminder of how the lead should have been performed – privileged, slightly obnoxious, but very funny – and he makes a much more engaging, relentlessly toffy toff than Crowe ("We don’t say shabby, Max. We say filled with the patina of a bygone era"; "This is a disaster. Mr froggy wine man has just knocked a million off our sale price"; "In France, is it actually illegal to shag your own cousin?": "Only if she’s ugly")


MaxI love this place. It’s intoxicating. I can’t for the life of me think why I stopped coming down here.

A Good Year also comes armed with an infectiously catchy, jaunty little score from Mark Steitenfeld (a protégée of Hans Zimmer who went on to provide the accompaniment for the next four Scott movies) that does a lovely job evoking an enticing, frivolous, luxuriant mood. It’s a foregone conclusion that Max will forsake being an asshole in the city for the good life in France, and even given the grievous miscasting, you’re rooting for him to make the right choice. This applies to the movie as a whole: even though you know Scott has made better, that it’s something of a mess and that the stabs at broad comedy fail entirely, A Good Year still has a certain charm. How many Scott movies conjure a place you’d actually want to visit?


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

I don't like bugs. You can't hear them, you can't see them and you can't feel them, then suddenly you're dead.

Blake's 7 2.7: Killer

Robert Holmes’ first of four scripts for the series, and like last season’s Mission to Destiny there are some fairly atypical elements and attitudes to the main crew (although the A/B storylines present a familiar approach and each is fairly equal in importance for a change). It was filmed second, which makes it the most out of place episode in the run (and explains why the crew are wearing outfits – they must have put them in the wash – from a good few episodes past and why Blake’s hair has grown since last week).
The most obvious thing to note from Holmes’ approach is that he makes Blake a Doctor-substitute. Suddenly he’s full of smart suggestions and shrewd guesses about the threat that’s wiping out the base, basically leaving a top-level virologist looking clueless and indebted to his genius insights. If you can get past this (and it did have me groaning) there’s much enjoyment to be had from the episode, not least from the two main guest actors.

When two separate events occur simultaneously pertaining to the same object of inquiry we must always pay strict attention.

Twin Peaks 1.5: The One-Armed Man
With the waves left in Albert’s wake subsiding (Gordon Cole, like Albert, is first encountered on the phone, and Coop apologises to Truman over the trouble the insulting forensics expert has caused; ”Harry, the last thing I want you to worry about while I’m here is some city slicker I brought into your town relieving himself upstream”), the series steps down a register for the first time. This is a less essential episode than those previously, concentrating on establishing on-going character and plot interactions at the expense of the strange and unusual. As such, it sets the tone for the rest of this short first season.

The first of 10 episodes penned by Robert Engels (who would co-script Fire Walk with Me with Lynch, and then reunite with him for On the Air), this also sees the first “star” director on the show in the form of Tim Hunter. Hunter is a director (like Michael Lehman) who hit the ground running but whose subsequent career has rather disapp…

An initiative test. How simply marvellous!

You Must Be Joking! (1965)
A time before a Michael Winner film was a de facto cinematic blot on the landscape is now scarcely conceivable. His output, post- (or thereabouts) Death Wish (“a pleasant romp”) is so roundly derided that it’s easy to forget that the once-and-only dining columnist and raconteur was once a bright (well…) young thing of the ‘60s, riding the wave of excitement (most likely highly cynically) and innovation in British cinema. His best-known efforts from this period are a series of movies with Oliver Reed – including the one with the elephant – and tend to represent the director in his pleasant romp period, before he attacked genres with all the precision and artistic integrity of a blunt penknife. You Must Be Joking! comes from that era, its director’s ninth feature, straddling the gap between Ealing and the Swinging ‘60s; coarser, cruder comedies would soon become the order of the day, the mild ribaldry of Carry On pitching into bawdy flesh-fests. You Must Be Joki…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Ain't nobody likes the Middle East, buddy. There's nothing here to like.

Body of Lies (2008)
(SPOILERS) Sir Ridders stubs out his cigar in the CIA-assisted War on Terror, with predictably gormless results. Body of Lies' one saving grace is that it wasn't a hit, although that more reflects its membership of a burgeoning club where no degree of Hollywood propaganda on the "just fight" (with just a smidgeon enough doubt cast to make it seem balanced at a sideways glance) was persuading the public that they wanted the official fiction further fictionalised.

Well, who’s going to monitor the monitors of the monitors?

Enemy of the State (1998)
Enemy of the State is something of an anomaly; a quality conspiracy thriller borne not from any distinct political sensibility on the part of its makers but simple commercial instincts. Of course, the genre has proved highly successful over the years so it's easy to see why big name producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson would have chased that particular gravy boat. Yet they did so for some time without success; by the time the movie was made, Simpson had passed away and Bruckheimer was flying solo. It might be the only major film in the latter's career that, despite the prerequisite gloss and stylish packaging, has something to say. More significant still, 15 years too late, the film's warnings are finally receiving recognition in the light of the Edward Snowden revelations.

In a piece for The Guardian earlier this year, John Patterson levelled the charge that Enemy was one of a number of Hollywood movies that have “been softening us up f…

Luck isn’t a superpower... And it isn't cinematic!

Deadpool 2 (2018)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps it’s because I was lukewarm on the original, but Deadpool 2 mercifully disproves the typical consequence of the "more is more" approach to making a sequel. By rights, it should plummet into the pitfall of ever more excess to diminishing returns, yet for the most part it doesn't.  Maybe that’s in part due to it still being a relatively modest undertaking, budget-wise, and also a result of being very self-aware – like duh, you might say, that’s its raison d'être – of its own positioning and expectation as a sequel; it resolutely fails to teeter over the precipice of burn out or insufferable smugness. It helps that it's frequently very funny – for the most part not in the exhaustingly repetitive fashion of its predecessor – but I think the key ingredient is that it finds sufficient room in its mirthful melee for plot and character, in order to proffer tone and contrast.

Whoever comes, I'll kill them. I'll kill them all.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) There’s no guessing he’s back. John Wick’s return is most definite and demonstrable, in a sequel that does what sequels ought in all the right ways, upping the ante while never losing sight of the ingredients that made the original so formidable. John Wick: Chapter 2 finds the minimalist, stripped-back vehicle and character of the first instalment furnished with an elaborate colour palette and even more idiosyncrasies around the fringes, rather like Mad Max in that sense, and director Chad Stahleski (this time without the collaboration of David Leitch, but to no discernible deficit) ensures the action is filled to overflowing, but with an even stronger narrative drive that makes the most of changes of gear, scenery and motivation.

The result is a giddily hilarious, edge-of-the-seat thrill ride (don’t believe The New York Times review: it is not “altogether more solemn” I can only guess Jeannette Catsoulis didn’t revisit the original in the interven…