There's no point in comparing movies to the books they've been based on; inevitably, the book is going to win out, in quality, scope, storytelling. And I generally don't go around reading the book after I've seen the film. Why did I do it this time? Probably because I drank a little too much wine after watching the movie.
But after finishing Peter Mayle's book -- a far too precious affair that gave me more sugar shock than my post-Halloween leftover-chocolate pig-out -- I realized that I liked the movie even more than I did at its closing credits.
That this gentle, charming (but not precious) film was made by Ridley Scott was the first surprise, as he's the English gent who's given us the frequently vicious Alien, Black Rain, Gladiator and Black Hawk Down. His one attempt at comedy, Matchstick Men, didn't fare well with critics or ticket-buyers. The second surprise is that A Good Year works so well, that Scott managed to make it compelling and entertaining without so much as a hint of violence or profanity or sex.
Well, OK, there is a hint of sex. It's between handsome Russell Crowe and gorgeous Marion Cotillard, so there's definitely something visual for both male and female audiences.
But while both actors present some fine work -- maybe Crowe will finally be given his due, that he's a well-rounded actor who can do just about anything -- this is a film where the feeling of place is most important. It opens "A Few Vintages Ago," immediately setting the wine-drenched tone, with a flashback of a young boy (Freddie Highmore) and his uncle (Albert Finney) enjoying each other's company on the uncle's French vineyard that's been the boy's summer home for years.
Then it jumps to "Many Vintages Later," and young Max (Crowe) is now all grown up, living in London, enjoying life as a successful and very shrewd player in the bond market. Crowe plays him as calm, collected and smiling, yet freely admits he's a cad around women as well as being full of himself.
But -- and here's more credit to Crowe -- his character is eminently likeable. And soon after Max gets the letter that shoots the story off to the small village in France where he spent all those summers, Crowe gets to show off his comic side, practicing what's got to be the first slapstick he's encountered in his film career.
That he does it well is one thing, but the inclusion of this kind of shtick in the film initially throws everything off-kilter. Scott and his writer Marc Klein throw in a bit more of it later, too, but they wisely keep it to a minimum.
Maybe it's here to counterbalance the story's sadness (which never really makes itself known). After all, the trip to France is because Max's uncle has died, leaving the vineyard and the big old house to him. Of course, being such a hotshot in London, he's only making the trip to sell the property, and make his pile of cash even higher.
Yeah, sure, like that's gonna happen.
Here's a film without a whole lot of surprises. You know where and how it's going to end up before it's halfway through. Maybe my positive reaction to it is because there's such a dearth of nice little movies about plain folks. Of course this one also has the sheen of a Scott production. He doesn't fool around with areas such as striking cinematography, perfectly complementary music (French pop tunes and a lilting score), and good performances. All of that is present -- as is the feeling, while watching it, that you want everyone and everything to turn out OK.
The flashbacks to Max's boyhood are inserted in a manner that suggests his boyhood on the vineyard made him the man he is today. You realize before long that he's not really a cad, and that's probably due to the beautiful, peaceful, relaxed place. If perchance this sounds like too much -- or too little -- to take, don't worry, there are other story elements. A young American woman (Abbie Cornish) suggests that she's the rightful heir; the Frenchman (Didier Bourdon) who has been working the land for Max's uncle has a certain secret; there are some potential legal problems back in London. And there's some wonderfully nasty cultural sniping among the French, British, and American characters.
The only people who might not like this film are cynics and fans of the book. The former because it's just so darn lovely, the latter because Scott and Klein have taken so many liberties in adding, subtracting and combining the book's characters and situations.
That last part is a bit odd, since in the "Author's Note" at the front of the book, Mayle writes: "For his crucial contribution to the book, I would like to thank Ridley Scott, whose nose for a good story got me started."
A GOOD YEAR
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Russell Crowe, Marion Cotillard, Albert Finney, Freddie Highmore