Lowdown: Ridley Scott singing the La Marseillaise.
Ridley Scott is a director I find most interesting because of the huge variance in the quality of his output. This means that on one hand you get pretty ordinary films, like Hannibal or G.I. Jane, whereas on the other side you get the truly state of the art Blade Runner. Scott is also notorious for producing films about himself: What is Gladiator, after all, if not an attempt to demonstrate how he himself has to gladiate in order to please the studios and the crowds?
On comes A Good Year, a film which I expected to be on the lower side of the Scott scale. I was, however, comfortably surprised on that; and I was also surprised to see that this is yet another film by Scott and about Scott.
First, I feel it is important to make one thing clear: A Good Year is not a film about tires. Instead, we are told the story of Russell Crowe, a nasty English piece of a stock trader who is not afraid to step on anyone in order to make a pound. Crowe is the ultimate capitalist / workaholic / consumerist you can ever imagine; yes, I am saying his character is taken more than a bit over the top. So does his British-ness: in yet another classic touch for the American market, the main consumer of A Good Year, Crowe is filled with all the British cliches you can imagine – to the point of making him unreal.
Cliches don’t stop there. Quickly enough we learn, through the notorious flashback tool, that Crowe used to have an uncle living in a large estate in Provence, where he (the uncle) did nothing but let his local wine guy produce wine from his vines. The cliche here is that the uncle role is portrayed by Albert Finney, who by now seems to have established himself into the niche of the old reminiscing relative he started out on with Big Fish.
Anyway, Finney dies and leaves Crowe his estate in Provence. Crowe flies there for a morning session in order to see how to make the most out of the sale of the estate, and through all sorts of comical situations he ends up stuck there; and just guess what happens next? Yes, he falls in love. With everything. What a major surprise!
Still, you can laugh at the plot’s predictability, but it’s not the point of the film; the point is the “how” rather than the “what”. And the “how” is quite good: I like Crowe even when he’s not at his best, for a start. But overall, I like the way this film is done: It is well done but it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s good on production values but it’s not stupid. And it has some interesting (albeit small) twists and turns on the way. Most of all, it has France and Provence, which is usually enough to buy me in.
Nationalities play an odd role in A Good Year. Essentially, the film bases itself on the inherent antagonism between the British and the French. Americans are portrayed as the ultimate idiots while the British are portrayed as their cleverer cousins who are still stuck in the mire; the French, however, seem to know best (even if they’re not aware of that). I was puzzled by this until I started hearing the director’s comments, which begin by Scott saying that he lives in Provence and that the film was shot eight minutes away from where he’s living. This made the coin drop: Effectively, Scott has produced another film about himself, this time around explaining why he left the hustle and bustle (without truly leaving it) and settled in Provence; and as usual, he makes his statement with much arrogance. Arrogant enough, might I add, to cast a New Zealander (Crowe) as leading British role and an Australian (Abbie Cornish) as the leading American role.
Best scene: Actually, it is very hard for me to point to a specific key scene here. There are many good scenes but no standouts. What I did like was the joke where Crowe overtakes a bunch of French cyclists in his car rather aggressively, and to their complaints he shouts “Lance Armstrong”.
Picture quality: Good, but… There is some loss of detail and some blotchiness of colors. That said, often the picture is just marvelous with the French country side scenery at its best.
Sound quality: Now, this is how it should be done! From a film that works on subtlety, you sort of don’t expect much. Wrong! This soundtrack manages to be both subtle and engulfing. You’re there in Provence while watching the film, and the feeling is just marvelous!
Overall: Look, this is not the perfect film. Its place is somewhere between in the 3 star plus band. However, I can’t deny I liked it a lot: I liked the pacing, I liked the story, I liked the message. And let’s not be around the bush: I really like France, and I consider the area of Provence to be the most beautiful area I have ever seen.
Thus I will let my personal prejudices take over and grant A Good Year with 4 out of 5 stars.