Film review: A Good Year

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  • Monday 23 October 2006

They say never to work with children or animals. To which we can now add another subset. Friends.

A Good Year

Ridley Scott, the decorated film director, and Peter Mayle, the best-selling author, are two such friends who came up with an idea for a working project over a couple of bottles of wine in Provence one summer. Both are residents there (Mayle full-time, Scott in the form of a holiday home and vineyard) and both like wine.

‘For years Ridley had wanted to shoot a film here because he’s got a house here and he loves the look of the countryside,’ says Mayle. ‘He was also interested in doing a story about wine, because he has a little vineyard here.’

Scott persuaded Mayle to write a vinous romp based in Provence which he would then put on the big screen. Like most ideas hatched after a couple of drinks, it turned out to sound good in theory, look okay on paper (Mayle’s book) but is an absolute dog on celluloid.

To be fair, Mayle kept his side of the bargain. The book, though not a Pulitzer Prize winner, is an entertaining, mildly engaging page-turner. The plot is simple – a successful but flawed City banker starts a new life after inheriting a rundown, under-performing vineyard in Provence. There he finds love and laughter while trying to revive the plot’s fortunes against local opposition and a backdrop of suspicious trading within the murky world of wine. It’s a fun, if fairly implausible read (unscrupulous négoces buying his wine and selling it on at vast prices to unsuspecting Asian buyers under the guise of a garage Bordeaux).

In Scott’s hands, this becomes a string of simple stereotypes – none more than Max (Crowe) the ballsy banker suspended after conducting a dodgy deal.

Immediately, Crowe’s character is the antithesis of the charming, likeable rogue, unjustly sacked, in the book – instead, trudging off to Provence to begrudgingly take up his inheritance, we’re willing him to fail. (And why would you have a New Zealander playing a London banker? For the same reason you have an Aussie playing his long-lost California cousin – who turns up in Provence to claim her inheritance – I guess.)

Before that, Max meets a few more off-the-shelf stereotypes – a charming, sassy cafe owner, a straight-talking, peasant vigneron… It goes downhill from there, with the vinous intrigue reduced to levels as predictable as the love story. The château’s wine is dreadful, but Max finds some other bottles in the cellar called ‘Le Coin Perdu’, which taste rather good. It turns out the wine fetches thousands on the black market and is very rare. Where could it come from? And what’s this unusual patch of vines and soil in a forgotten corner of the vineyard? And why is our resident vigneron so keen to stay on when Max is looking to sell? I’ll let you do the detective work – Scott never really resolves this side of the story. Perhaps he got bored. I certainly did.

The script plumbs new depths too: ‘I want a bottle that tastes like you and a glass that is never empty…’ The writer of the screenplay, Marc Klein, admits he ‘knew nothing about wine or Provence’. One wonders is he’s familar with the art of script-writing either.

Apparently, though, as Mayle recounts, everyone had a great time on location, filming the project. ‘There was never any friction, never any disputes,’ says Mayle. Perhaps there should have been.

A Good Year (opens 27 October)

Dir: Ridley Scott. Starring: Russell Crowe, Albert Finney and Marion Cotillard

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