A Good Year
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 directing 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 a half 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).
This 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 are 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”).
Max: I 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). It 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?