Sunday, November 05, 2006

A Good Movie?

A Good Year - a review
Ever since rumours began to emerge that Ridley Scott was making a "wine film" in Provence with Russell Crowe, at least some members of the wine world have been rubbing their hands in anticipation of another Sideways. Well, I'm sorry to be the one to pour cold water on those hopes. Firstly A Good Year is – and is not – a "wine film". In a world of remakes, this movie could easily be reshot for a Saudi Arabian audience with remarkably few changes to the script. Running the screenplay through a "search and replace" programme that substituted "horse" and "stable" for "wine" and "cellar", and a relocation from southern France to southern Ireland would go a long way to permitting A Good Year to be reshot as A Good Season. Russell Crowe would still undergo a rural epiphany, but instead of giving up a career as a city slicker for life among the vines, he'd turn into a race horse trainer.

Of course, one might reasonably say that Sideways was simply a classic buddy-movie/ road-movie that happened to be set in a wine region, but it was a much, much better film than A Good Year. Scott's movie certainly looks good; indeed if the tourist authorities of London and Provence had commissioned him to knock up one of his commercials for them, sections of this film are almost certainly what he'd have delivered. The actors are all pleasant enough to watch too – indeed I'd happily watch Marion Cotillard, the female lead read the collected speeches of Jacques Chirac, and demand a rendition of the works of Donald Rumsfeld as an encore. But the film is one of the most lightweight efforts I've seen in a long while – and quite impossible to recognise as the work of the man responsible for Blade Runner. Don't get me wrong: this is not a bad film. Indeed, it's the kind of undemanding stuff I'm happy to find on offer in a plane on the long flight to Australia. But even romantic comedies – the category in which this wants to be included – need more of a plot than is on offer here. The film and the Peter Mayle novel on which it was based, were apparently cooked up by Mayle and Scott over a boozy lunch in much the same way that the two men must have conceived of clever 30 second commercials in the days before Mr M took root in France.

The story, such as it is, can be recounted in three sentences without spoiling the enjoyment of the film. Max, an orphan, spends summers, as a child, with his uncle Henry (nicely played by Albert Finney) who appreciates the finer things of life and owns a beautiful Provencal chateau and vineyard. By the time we meet him as an adult, Max has evolved into a noughties London version of Michael Douglas in Wall Street. But then, of course, Uncle dies, Max returns to Provence, falls in love with the place and with the delicious but hard-to-get café-owner Fanny (Marion Coutillard) and decides to give up on London and move into his old uncle's shoes.. And that, is more or less it. Russell Crowe is well cast as the city slicker but never begins to make us believe in the rural epiphany.

So what about the wine? I'm all too aware of the tedious readiness of bee-keepers or collectors of toy soldiers to pick holes in the veracity of cinematic moments concerning their special interest. But it seems fair to to consider A Good Year'd vinous veracity, given the fact that wine and winemaking supposedly lie at the heart of this movie, and that scriptwriter Marc Klein who admits that he knew nothing about Provence or wine when he took on the project, apparently "spent almost a year" researching both. It is very hard to see what Klein learned, that he could not have picked up by reading a couple of magazine articles. Stated bluntly, when it comes to wine, the film is almost totally incoherent. Early on, Max's best friend – a wine buff, we are told - sets the tone by wrongly identifying a Burgundy as a Bordeaux in a restaurant. Easily done, but less easy when the shape of the bottle is clearly visible. We are subsequently asked to believe that wine-loving Uncle and his devoted French winemaker Duflot not only produce a wine that is so revolting that almost no one in the film ever manages to swallow it, but also a "garage wine" with a cult reputation. Oh, I forgot to mention that the provenance of the garage wine is supposedly a mystery (which must make commercial distribution a little tricky) though anyone who has seen the vineyard artlessly and incongruously strewn with gravel might well guess.

Perhaps my biggest disappointment, though, was the fact that despite Ridley Scott's brilliant (though easily accomplished) job of making us all want to follow Max in moving to Provence, he fails to evoke the peculiar magic the wine can have on people. Two films have done this brilliantly: Sideways, in which you can almost smell the Pinot Noir that Maya is drinking and Babette's Feast, in which we first see Stephane Audran luxuriating in the first taste of great wine – any wine – after a long puritan sojourn in the snowy wastes of rural Denmark. Even more memorably, a few minutes later in this same film, comes the sight of an old woman who plainly sucks lemons as a hobby being seduced against her will by a glass of red. Ridley Scott is a very sophisticated evocative director; maybe one day he'll return to the subject of food and wine a lot more fruitfully than he did here.

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