A Good Year Review

Max Skinner (Russell Crowe) is a London uber-trader. But his latest money-making spree on the markets has found his company under investigation and himself on suspension. Meanwhile, his uncle Henry (Albert Finney) has died, leaving him a large house and grounds, not to mention vines, in Provence. All Max sees in this rambling French property is a money-making opportunity, but as he stays, the sunshine, wine and the eccentric locals, not to mention the love of Fanny (Marion Cotillard) unlocks the sensitive man locked away in the belly of the Capitalist beast.

“The secret of comedy is timing.” If you’re writing what is essentially a romantic comedy you have to have some confidence to include that line of dialogue, not just once but twice. On its cinema release, A Good Year (based on a novel by A Year in Provence writer Peter Mayle) received a kicking, for reasons that certainly have justification. This is a light comedy directed by a man and starring another man who are neither noted for their light comic touch. Even without that aspect to the part, Russell Crowe is miscast. The film is only moderately amusing, and obeys my rule of thumb about comedy in that it is overlong by the amount it exceeds ninety minutes. It’s also relentlessly predictable. Yet I couldn’t bring myself to dislike this film, possibly because I didn’t trek through November weather to spend over seven pounds to see it at my local multiplex. In less demanding circumstances, say after lunch or in an early evening on television, with the three F-words removed, this could be pleasant enough viewing, with a glass of wine or two to put you in the mood. And if you nod off now and again, that won’t hurt too much.

A Good Year has the air of an indulgence for Ridley Scott, who has lived in Provence for some fifteen years. Scott has proven himself too erratic to be a truly great director: he’s a great – and very influential – visual stylist whose Achilles heel is the story and script. His best films have been made from the best scripts, but when the foundations are weaker, he flounders. Marc Klein may defend himself in the commentary in that he says that all the national stereotypes are true, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that most of his characters are so thinly drawn that they are only stereotypes. And when you have to rely on a pissing dog and Crowe falling into a disused swimming pool filled with fertiliser, you’re in trouble. Whatever you may say about Hugh Grant and Richard Curtis, as Kevin O’Reilly says in his cinema review on this site, you only have to imagine what they could have done with material like this to see how Crowe, Klein and Scott miss the target. Another problem is that Crowe’s character seems a make-believe city trader than a realistic one – you doubt that such people, who don’t have time for weekends or holidays, would be likely to read at all, let alone a demanding read like Death in Venice. (And that’s hardly likely reading for a ten-year-old.) Crowe tries his best, but he can’t square the circle that the script asks him to. Albert Finney gives a pleasing performance as Uncle Henry, who appears in a brief prologue with Freddie Highmore as young Max and appears in a series of flashbacks, the last of which has a mild surprise. Other actors give solid performances, including Kenneth Cranham as Max's boss and Archie Panjabi as his PA. It’s nice to see an actress as striking as Abbie Cornish (as Christie, Henry’s illegitimate Californian daughter) appearing in a film outside her native Australia, even if her character is fairly superfluous.

Of course Provence looks absolutely gorgeous through Scott’s eyes. (The DP is Philippe Le Sourd, but you sense Scott has had a lot of input, and indeed has frequently coaxed career-best work from his directors of photography.) However, Scott is less than subtle by giving London such cold, grey-blue tones as he does. And you notice how soon after its construction the Gherkin building has become shorthand for the city it resides in. On the other hand, you do get to hear Johnny Hallyday singing a French-language version of “Hey Joe”, plus clips from Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday during one key scene.

A Good Year will never go down as one of Scott’s best films, though it’s not a terrible one. It’s not an especially good one either. But save it up for a cold winter’s day and you may enjoy it more.

Fox Video’s DVD is encoded for Region 2 only. It begins with a trailer for Rocky Balboa and an advertisement for Sky HD, but you can skip past these with your remote.

Shot in Super 35 and shown in Scope in cinemas, A Good Year on DVD is presented in a ratio of 2.40:1, anamorphically enhanced. The transfer is a little on the soft side, and the London sequences are blue-toned and somewhat grainy, though I suspect some of these are deliberate choices. It’s an acceptable transfer, though maybe less so on larger and/or more demanding set-ups. This may be due to a reduced bitrate, brought about by what amounts to two copies of the film on the same disc, as I make clear when discussing the “Postcards from Provence” feature below.

The main soundtrack is Dolby Digital 5.1 at 448 kbps, and it’s a busily immersive one, using the surrounds a lot for ambience – for example the crickets in the opening sequence with Uncle Henry – music and directional effects. In a nice touch, there’s a second track, in English with audio description. This is also in 5,1, but the lower bitrate of 384 kbps. Subtitles are provided for the hard-of-hearing with some fixed subtitles translating occasional French dialogue. The extras are subtitled as well. The soundtrack and the subtitles can only be selected from the menu, not during the film itself.

“Postcards from Provence” is an unusual feature: an audio commentary by Ridley Scott and Marc Klein (over a non-anamorphic 2.40:1 transfer) which cuts at appropriate times through the film to a short featurette in 4:3. This version of the film, with the additional featurettes, runs 137:39. The featurettes can be selected individually from a menu: “The Chess Game” (4:26 including the beginning of the Scott/Klein commentary), “On the Road” (3:47), “The Swimming Pool” (5:18), “The Tennis Match” (4:30), “The Wine Cellar” (4:09), “Fanny’s Café” (4:28), “The Dinner” (3:44), “The Basin” (5:58), “A Good Life” (4:10). Scott as ever produces a fine commentary, which almost persuades you that the film is better than it is. Klein, who seems to have been recorded separately and edited in, is less interesting to listen to. I’m not sure this feature works especially well: I’d have preferred the commentary over one transfer of the film (which could therefore have a higher bitrate), and the featurettes presented separately, especially as you can’t listen to the former on its own without skipping over the latter.

Next up is a curious short promo for the film. It begins with Crowe and Scott sitting around a table in Provence, filmed in grainy black and white, their rather jokey conversation interspersed with clips from the film in colour. This is all in non-anamorphic 1.78:1 and runs 2:29. It also includes what is presumably censored dialogue – Max’s line “Today is Greedy Bastard Day” becomes “Today is Greedy Bugger Day” – though who would find the latter more acceptable than the former, I don’t know.

Also included on the disc are the “Greedy Bugger” theatrical trailer (2:17, in 2:40 anamorphic) and the “Greedy Bastard” international trailer (2:16, 2.40:1 non-anamorphic).

Rounding off the disc, and tipping it over into redundancy, are three music videos, courtesy of Russell Crowe & The Ordinary Fear of God: “One Good Year” (4:46), “Weight of a Man” (3:21), “Testify” (3:38). All of these are fairly bland soft rock, and including them on this DVD smacks of self-indulgence.

Crowe and Scott’s achievements elsewhere are beyond doubt, but A Good Year is hardly their finest couple of hours. It does have its pleasures, though they are mostly on the surface. Fans of star or director may want to take a look, though otherwise it will pass an amiable if uncritical evening.

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