Published July 1, 2000
Saving Grace, written by Craig Ferguson and Mark Crowdy and directed by Nigel Cole, I found a surprisingly charming and thoroughly entertaining film until about three quarters of the way through, when it lapsed into a tired druggy fantasy that made the rest of the thing look bad retrospectively. I think the key to making a movie which features recreational drugs in a prominent role is not to be taking any such drugs yourself — a common-sense precaution that the makers of this film seem at least occasionally to have neglected. The result is more than one scene in which the characters are seen smoking dope and giggling, in the way that dope-smokers often do, in the confident but utterly mistaken expectation that the great joke of their intoxication is as obvious to everyone else as it is to them. News from the popcorn eaters, boys: it ain’t.
The film tells the story of a middle aged widow, Grace (Brenda Blethyn), living a comfortable, upper-middle class sort of life as the local gentry in a Cornish fishing village until her husband’s death reveals that he has got them massively in debt, and she is in danger of losing everything that she has built her life around for years. Unable to save her house and other possessions any other way, she encourages her Scottish gardener, Matthew (Mr Ferguson), to cut her in on his project of growing illegal hashish. Together they go into business on an industrial scale, and the wacky, lovable Cornish villagers who are their neighbors turn a blind eye. But is it too late? As we reach the climax, the police, a London drug lord and her late husband’s creditors are all closing in on Grace. . .
So far so good, you might say, though the lovably wacky Cornish villagers are a little bit over the top, even before they join in the party and the incomprehensible giggling. But at this point, having no idea what else to do, the film breaks down and gives up on any semblance of realistic plotting. Instead, it trots out that venerable hippie fantasy of the 1960s, amazingly still alive after all these years, of solving both yours and the world’s problems by turning the whole world on. Oh please! When you see the police taking their clothes off and chasing breathless matrons around the lawn you know that the quest for comedy has finally wandered off the well-worn paths of sanity.
This is a shame because, early on, the humor of the film seems much sharper and the characters are interesting and sympathetic. Grace especially is an appealing victim of her husband’s profligacy, and Ms Blethyn, who gave such a memorable performance in Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies, is equally good here as a solid, middle-class, Women’s Institute type — she gets into the hash business because one of Matthew’s seedlings is poorly, saying: “I’m a gardener; these are sick plants” — who does what she has to do to hang on to her social status. Matthew, his girlfriend Nicky (Valerie Edmond) and the French drug lord played by Tcheky Karyo are also charming in their different ways. Even Dr. Bamford (Martin Clunes), the incompetent village G.P. and the principal customer for Matthew’s weed before he goes into factory farming, is made to seem witty and amusing. At the funeral for Grace’s husband, who died by falling (or jumping) out of an airplane, the doctor is asked: “What kind of injuries would someone have if he fell from that height?”
“Very bad ones,” he replies.
One thing it is useful to remember is the reputation of the Cornish in the rest of England as smugglers and brigands. The local townspeople along parts of the wild coast were even reputed to use false lighthouse signals to lure passing ships onto the rocks, so that they could loot the wrecks. One villager, on learning of Grace’s new enterprise, says: “It kind of warms the heart, Grace carrying on the local tradition of complete contempt for the law.” Even the village Bobby, zealous in pursuit of salmon poachers, warns her to get rid of her stuff quick, before the police from out of town arrive. In this, the film is a sort of Cornish version of Waking Ned Devine, mining the tradition of lawlessness on the Celtic fringe of Britain for humor — though unfortunately it doesn’t unearth quite so much of the stuff as the Irish film did.