Each month, we at FilmHounds take a look at a director’s back catalogue and pick their lowest rated film on Rotten Tomatoes and ask ourselves – why? Why is it their least loved among critics? Regardless, we attempt to see the good in it.
This Month: Ridley Scott’s A GOOD YEAR (2006)
There is no denying the love that the film community holds for Sir Ridley Scott. When your sophmore feature film is something as masterful as Alien, you know you are going to be scorched into the film loving world forever. Yes, Scott has made a solid grounding in science fiction films, thanks to the aforementioned horror film as well as the likes of Blade Runner, but he’s also mastered historical epics, intimate character studies and true life stories all the same. There is however one genre that Scott perhaps is not well adept in – comedy. Though the Golden Globes designated The Martian a comedy in 2016, because it happens to be witty in places, it’s very clearly a science fiction adventure film that happens to raise a chuckle or two. In fact, looking at his filmography his only other foray into broad comedy is 2006 rom-com A Good Year.
A Good Year is a very simple premise, Max Skinner (Russell Crowe) is a cynical stock broker in London who must travel to his uncle’s vineyard in the South of France upon his death to settle the books and sell it off. Once there his memories of summers spent with his eccentric uncle flood back and a romance is kindled between him and a childhood friend Fanny (Marion Cotillard).
There is no denying the skill with which Scott can shoot a film. Whether it’s the desert planes of Nevada, futuristic visions of cities or the ancient kingdoms long gone, Scott can build worlds with his vision that few filmmakers can hope to achieve. The term “visionary” is very easily applied to Scott; he sees his films visually and it shows, but it also underlines that he perhaps doesn’t have the best eye for a good screenplay. Marc Klein, who adapted the script for A Good Year from Peter Mayle’s novel, has a very simple premise to contend with, one of a cynic becoming a believer, coupled with a few fish-out-of-water gags. But his bizarre choice is to include an entire subplot about insider trading that shoehorns in an over-the-top Kenneth Cranham and Rafe Spall.
Rather what the film does best is to set up a few warring issues – the budding romance between Max and Fanny, the parentage of American visitor Christie (Abbie Cornish), her budding romance with Max’s friend Charlie (Tom Hollander) and the issue of the terrible sour grapes that make for awful tasting wine. When the film focusses on this it could be easily a very likeable film, one that charms you with the rich colours, and choice soundtrack as well as the kind of easy rapport that old-fashioned romantic comedies do best.
The cast are – but for one – perfectly cast. Marion Cotillard is full of easy charm as Fanny Chanal, the person who looks to bring Max back to his more carefree and charming childhood ways, both Abbie Cornish and Tom Hollander know how to play brash American and stuffy Brit perfectly, and there’s no denying that this sort of eccentric old guy is a role made for Sir Albert Finney – who relishes running around swashing wine in a pair of shorts. The issue is that for all his talent and screen presence, Russell Crowe can’t really do comedy, or rather, he’s not equipped for rom-coms. Crowe can do black comedy – see The Nice Guys – but not only is his accent a little iffy, he lacks the ease of bumbling British comedy that would be better suited to say Hugh Grant (clearly Crowe borrowed Grant’s Four Weddings hair), or Colin Firth, or even Jude Law. These are actors with an ease at playing those roles while Crowe goes for a sense of realism which can’t exist in a rom-com of this nature.
Scott also could have done better to ask a writer like Richard Curtis or Emma Thompson to provide the script, able to give more broad laughs to the film, better slapstick and dirty humour that works in their writing rather than Klein’s often predictable script.
But, even with those two errors in Scott’s judgement, he’s able to adapt his own style of direction. There’s an ease to his editing in the French sequences and a frenetic energy to the stuff in London, offering a warm yellow palette on the Vineyard and a cold blue to London. He juxtaposes the two worlds perfectly, offering a literal night and day depiction of the life Max could choose either way. It’s also fair that his reputation as someone not equipped to deal with actors has since changed, not bogged down building entire civilisations, Scott is able to focus on the performances, and when he’s dealing in character beats the film soars.
The film also manages to show Scott’s cineaste credentials, an important sequence sees a rain soaked date between Max and Fanny as they watch a montage of old films to music in an outdoor cinema. Scott puts in clips from La bandera (1935), Sylvie et le fantome (1946), La Chartreuse de Parme (1948), Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1953), And Woman… Was Created (1956), and Mon Oncle (1958) all of which are films dealing in either romance, double identities or flat out comedies. Clearly Scott is drawing on the films he’s taken inspiration from – in particular the charms of Jacques Tati – Mon Oncle concerns an uncle who can’t quite get with the modern world, while A Good Year is about a nephew who can’t get with the old style world.
What might have gone against the film is that Scott and Crowe’s output together has skewed towards serious minded action and thrillers in equal measure for the five films they made together – Gladiator, American Gangster, Body of Lies and Robin Hood – A Good Year sticks out as the one that feels least like the two collaborators. It also doesn’t help that the film was a follow-up to Scott’s seriously trashed Kingdom of Heaven which many people saw as an inferior riff on Gladiator so the two reuniting for a romantic comedy doesn’t seem like the sort of work either would be attracted to.
Even so, in revisiting the film there are riches to be found. Finney in particular is a stand out, the kind of casting where you think this role was written specifically for the actor, while a lot of the romance works because Scott takes the time to set up the dynamic, and the conflict between the two romantic leads. It’s a film that asks you to take it easy, and to go in wanting to have a nice time, and that’s what the film is – it’s nice, an easy going film that has the feel and pace of a casual walk in the French countryside on a sunny Sunday afternoon. To enjoy it you must embrace it’s old style filmmaking and tone, and perhaps, have a nice glass of vino as well.
You may find that A Good Year is actually a good film.