Saving Grace

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

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.

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