The title The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill, but Came Down a Mountain suggests all sorts of possibilities, starting with a documentary about Sir Edmund Hillary. The movie that hides behind the title, however, is a charming, tall-tale comedy spun with sly, cheeky ease and flashes of visual grace.
The setting is a small village in Wales, near the English border, during World War I. The theme is local pride. Two English cartographers (Hugh Grant and Ian McNeice) arrive in the town for the purpose of measuring the nearby elevation, Ffynnon Garw. The locals regard it as the town's sole claim to fame as "the first mountain in Wales." They are crushed and outraged when they learn the findings of the surveyors: Ffynnon Garw (pronounced, as far as I could catch it, "Finnan Garrow") falls short of qualifying as a mountain by about 20 feet.
Because of its proximity to England, if Ffynnon Garw isn't the first Welsh mountain, if it isn't a mountain at all, but a mere hill, then the town at its foot can hardly be regarded as a part of Wales. To the xenophobic townies, who regard WWI as little more than a civil conflict between two sets of disreputable Anglo-Saxons, the thought of not being Welsh is unbearable.
Their response is simply to raise the mountain. One large faction of the townies, led by the fervent, teetotaling Reverend Jones (Kenneth Griffith) and the war vet Johnny Shellshocked (Ian Hart) sets about the truly herculean task of hauling enough earth up the slope to create an artificial peak that meets the height requirements for mountainhood. A smaller faction, led by the publican, Morgan the Goat (Colm Meaney), conspires to detain the two Englishmen in town until the retrofit can be accomplished.
Morgan's tactics on this second front show why the reverend inveighs against him regularly from the pulpit. After arranging the sabotage of the Englishmen's car, he plies McNeice with drink, and brings in a shady lady known as Betty of Cardiff (Tara Fitzgerald) to distract Grant, who is by no means averse to distraction. For the sake of solidarity during a crisis, however, the reverend is willing to tolerate Morgan's maneuverings.
Writer/director Christopher Monger says that he based this tale on stories told him by his father and grandfather, but it's hard to miss a dash of Bill Forsyth's Scottish comedy Local Hero in the Englishman's heritage. The focus is on the colorful eccentricities of small-town people, and the appeal is in the rustic exoticism of the Welsh, like their characteristic monikers. I had always assumed that Dylan Thomas was just being poetical when he gave names like "Captain Cat" to many of the people in Under Milk Wood, but, according to Monger's film, it's a cultural reality, necessitated by the shortage of proper surnames in Wales--all those Evanses, Davieses and Morgans to keep straight.
The film's commercial drawing card in this country is, of course, the young man playing the title role. Although his role isn't as rich as in Four Weddings and a Funeral, Hugh Grant goes through his stammering, foot-shuffling, sheepish-schoolboy routine very pleasingly. It's hard to tell, based on the work we've seen in this country, if there's anything else Grant can do, but at what he does, he's a delight.
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The entire cast is fine, with Meaney bluff and winning as usual. But the most striking performance is by Fitzgerald, who played Grant's alert, deceptively reserved wife in Sirens, as the sassy, intoxicatingly lovely Betty of Cardiff. If it was necessary to import a beautiful young Brit to these shores for use in American movies, why couldn't it have been Fitzgerald, rather than the dreary Julia Ormond?
The Englishman has moments of pictorial beauty, like the shots of the townies trudging up and down the mountain in their bizarre task, accompanied by Stephen Endelman's rousing music. Now and then, it also seems to touch on something like drama, as well. When Johnny Shellshocked collapses, paralyzed with terror by the lightning as he and another man try frantically to cover the new mound with a tarp during a storm, the town's obsession takes on a darker dimension.
This, however, enhances and deepens the film's comic spirit rather than compromises it. The Englishman has no serious pretensions to art. Unlike the people in the shadow of Ffynnon Garw, Christopher Monger is no glory-grabber. He's quite content to let his movie be a hill--modest on majesty, and not significant in the landscape, but a pleasant climb, picturesque, sunny and relaxing.