A Good Year

2007-02-09 18:11

When London-based stockbroker Max Skinner (Russell Crowe) is briefly suspended from his job following a risky but very profitable gamble on the market, he decides to use the time to make yet more money. He travels to Provence to sell a small vineyard he has inherited from his late uncle (Albert Finney), despite the fact that it is the site of many of his happiest childhood memories. But things do not go according to plan. First he meets, and quickly makes an enemy of, an intoxicating local beauty named Fanny (Marion Cotillard) and then his uncle’s long lost Californian love child, the equally beautiful Christie (Abbie Cornish), shows up out of the blue and threatens his claim on the property. The vineyard’s irascible winemaker (Didier Bourdon) isn’t making things any easier, and is determined to block the sale of his beloved vines. But, as he spends more time in Provence, Max finds his priorities shifting as the wine, food and beauty begin to remind him of what life is really all about.


It’s official, Ridley Scott has gone a bit soft. After decades of cold-hearted cyborgs and epic battle scenes, he has finally made his first honest-to-goodness romantic comedy. Not that we’re complaining. On the contrary, it’s almost impossible to dislike a gauzy, whimsical little fantasy like A Good Year.

Of course, Scott didn’t go soft on his own. Leave it to long time friend, novelist and professional idler Peter Mayle to drag him into la dolce vita. The pair met decades ago in London’s cut-throat advertising world, and since then they have both acquired homes in Provence (though only Mayle has gone native). It was over a shared lunch in these magical surroundings that the idea for both book and film was allegedly dreamed up, with Scott acquiring the rights before a word had even been written.

Like all of Mayle’s work, the story has a strong emphasis on the idea that life is best lived in bucolic settings like the intoxicating Luberon valley, and that pits of ravenous workaholics like London are best avoided. In Mayle’s universe all that is required to convert the most hardened of cynics is a few weeks of wine, women and leisure (well, it worked for him). Throw in some gold tinged memories of an eccentric uncle and you’ve got a recipe for feel good cinema.

The only problem is that, no matter how hard he tries, Scott just can’t resist going all epic and grand on the movie. There’s a lingering sense of melodrama beneath all the fluff, as though something sudden and dramatic is about to happen. When nothing ever does, and the movie idles gently to a halt, you’re left thinking “hang on, where was that climax that we were building towards?”

Still, climactic or not, the movie is full of enough gentle charms to make it as eminently watchable as it is forgettable. Russell Crowe displays a delightful and quite unexpected sense of comic timing as his acerbic character tools around the French countryside in a Smart car, dispensing cheeky quips and arrogant putdowns in equal quantities. (You have to wonder whether Smart are pleased that their vehicles have become a universal cinematic symbol for silliness.)

Crowe is joined by a marvellous supporting cast, with Tom Hollander doing some particularly good work as Max’s weasely best friend. Didier Bourdon brings depth and humour to what could easily have been a caricature, investing his wine maker with scruffy charm and genuine emotion. Look out for the delightful Archie Panjabi as Max’s PA - a talented actress who’s slowly but surely working her way into the mainstream.

The major female roles, while slightly underwritten, are as much of a feast for the eyes as the (regrettably few) dinner scenes. It may not be politically correct to cast women based on looks, but it certainly is effective. Of course if you’re Ridley Scott, then you get to have your cake and eat it by recruiting beauty and talent. Both Marion Cotillard and Abbie Cornish rise above the fluff to portray fully three-dimensional people.

However lovely the cast may be to look at, the countryside should be the real centrepiece of any movie set in the Luberon. Sadly, as with the food, Scott pays far too little attention to the natural beauty around him. Oh, sure, there are plenty of pretty shots, but he spends too much energy on giving the film a kind of hazy golden halo. It’s as though he’s taken his signature visual style – the bold details and striking clarity - and simply dipped it all in a rich syrup. The effect, while strangely comforting, is more distracting than effective.

International critics have savaged the film, calling it flimsy, predictable and strained. This seems like an overly harsh attack on such a cuddly and unassuming little movie. Yes, it’s not exactly original. Yes, we’ve seen better jokes. And no, it’s not going to win any awards for dramatic intensity, but this is a romantic comedy for goodness sake!

Perhaps these critics are saying that even the great Ridley Scott should know his place: “You’re a swords-and-strife man Ridley – steer clear of the fluff.” And they seem to have gotten their wish. Scott’s forthcoming projects are all about guns, gangs and other manly pursuits. We’d do well to savour this confection, however sugary and undercooked it may be. Scott may have gone a little soft, but you can bet he won’t be showing us that side again any time soon.

- Alistair Fairweather
By the looks of A Good Year, the guys that brought us Gladiator have definitely gone a bit soft. But you can't help but enjoy this cheeky, whimsical little comedy.

etienne andlau 2006/11/24 11:19 PM
going soft they are not "going soft" they are simply UNLIKE the rest of us, struggling to grow up.
*** 2006/12/14 10:36 AM
The Good year Really enjoyable, but did not really like Russel Crowe in the main role - he has become very arrogant and it shows on screen. The other actors were good and really played their roles well. Good lesson to be learnt in this movie that everything is not just about money - and how we can find alternatives to making money and enjoying life at the same time.
Paul 2007/01/04 12:15 PM
Excellent I thought it was excellent and a good change from all the mayhem on the screen so often. Beautifully filmed and with a little moral in the story too. A real fee good relaxing outing.
joey 2007/06/20 2:12 AM
a good movie refreshing. nice humour, lovely settings, wonderful characters and a rather relevant story. very uplifting.
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