Sunday, April 13, 2014

Saving Grace


We eventually finished shooting the Tower of London scenes for Goodfollies and moved on to several other locations in the British capital. We had a rather nerve wracking day at Madame Tussaud's waxworks where Chris MacNeil, playing my best friend Carmelina 'Big Pussycat' Coloratura, and I had a scene involving being stalked by a hooded assassin. I'm not sure just where this fits in the plot of a film about lady mobsters but I have been assured by the director that it's absolutely essential. I really will have to get the script out and read it one of these days.

The production company had neglected to arrange with Madame Tussaud's to close the museum while we shot our scenes so we had to do the work while thousands of tourists, all flashing Kodak disposables, ran rampant through the set. I'd be sitting there on my tea break when some Neanderthal in a too tight t-shirt would race up to me and squeal 'Oh my god, it's Vicki Lester - she looks so lifelike' and hang all over me while cameras clicked away. There were also those who seemed to think I was George Hamilton, but I quietly ignored them. Chris had it worse, not only did she have a lot of ignoramuses thinking she was Shirley Maclaine in a bad wig, she also had that devilish daughter of hers running around. Security brought Regan back several times after they found her taking severe liberties with the Mother Teresa figure and her crucifix.

After that exhausting day, I felt a need for something that showed the more refined aspects of British culture. Something about the simple country life and the manor and noblesse oblige. Poking through the recent Netflix arrivals, I found Saving Grace, the 2000 comedy from Nigel Cole starring Brenda Blethyn and Craig Ferguson. It seemed to suit my mood so I popped it into the player, put up my feet and plunged into the Fortnum's hamper I'd found sitting in the hallway of my hotel.

Saving Grace is the story of Grace Trevethyn (Blethyn), the lady of the small manor house in the even smaller Cornish fishing village of Padstow. She's lived in this small, insular community for years, raising orchids and never questioning her husband, who has business dealings in the city. One day, her husband jumps from an airplane sans parachute and she is left a widow. Not only a widow, but one without assets and with a mountain of debt from her husband's business dealings. In order to save her home and way of life, Grace colludes with her gardener, Matthew (Ferguson), an amiable lout with little direction in life, into turning her orchid greenhouse into a cannabis cultivation operation. 20 or 30 kilos should retire the debt and give Matthew access to better stuff than he's been able to grow under the vicarage hedgerow. Aided and abetted by the local doctor (Martin Clunes), the pair aren't nearly as clever at outwitting the locals as they might like to think and get in way over their heads when Grace heads off to London in an elegant little white suit, hoping to spot a Notting Hill drug dealer to take the crop off her hands. Instead, she winds up with help from a mysterious Frenchman (Tcheky Karyo) with a penchant for fly fishing and her dead husband's mistress (Diana Quick).

This ramshackle slice of life comedy is close kin to the Ealing Studio comedies of the 50s. It's very reminiscent of Whiskey Galore and Passport to Pimlico in its portrayal of small town British life as a community that bands together to help its own, no matter what the rules might be. The Cornwall setting helps, both with the wild scenery and in the temperament of the Cornish who have always mistrusted centralized authority and who have a long and honorable smuggling tradition. It also has echoes of the Scottish comedies of Bill Forsyth, such as Local Hero. Great care is taken in the writing and the performance to give us a wonderfully diverse little band of people, who may squabble and fuss on the surface, but who have strong affection for each other underneath and the central relationship between Grace and Matthew is one of the most honest and unpretentious explorations of the nature of friendship in films in a long time. The casting is spot on, and there is a nod to the older tradition of British comedy by having Leslie Phillips, a staple of British comic acting for several generations, appear as the vicar who knows his parishioners too well and who acts as moral compass for the film.

Some reviewers have found the messages of the film to be pro-drug. I don't think so. The filmmakers are rather non-judgmental about the drugs and put the ideas and attitudes about marijuana into an appropriate place in societal dialogue. The drugs are, in many ways, a maguffin. The characters care about them but they're in many ways, immaterial to the film. What we care about is the characters and whether they will achieve dreams and happiness, not whether they're going to get stoned. The film is careful not to show drugs solving anyone's problems and approaches drug use from a public health point of view, just like tobacco or alcohol, rather than from a criminal point of view. The characters who are a bit potheaded are also carefully shown to be more or less arrested in development. They can't move forward with their lives until they recognize that the drugs aren't the be all and the end all.

Brenda Blethyn, best known for her histrionic characters on screen, is quiet and reserved as Grace. She's very real and doesn't go for cheap and easy laughs. She takes great care to make sure that this is comedy of situation, not comedy of archness or bad manners. Craig Ferguson is nearly her match. He comes from a background of stand-up but manages to shelve most of the shtick to create an endearing lump of a good man. The supporting cast are carefully chosen and wonderful. Everyone, even the little old ladies of the garden club, gets at least one wonderful little moment or scene.

The DVD contains the film in original theatrical proportions. Picture and sound are adequate, although there are a couple of glitches at chapter breaks. There are two commentary tracks. On one, director Cole and star/writer Ferguson are joined by star Brenda Blethyn to discuss performance and acting. On the other, Cole and Ferguson are joined by co-writer Mark Crowdy to discuss script development. In both cases, the commentary is literate, intelligent and much more about the process of finding character and story then about either the technical aspects of film making or behind the scenes anecdotes.

Blown fuses. Public grow-light watching. Spring eye glasses. Naked police constable. Cornflakes eating. Empty rave space. Uncomfortable graveyard confrontation. Fishing trawler jump. Supercilious bank manager.

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