Irish charm and British eccentricity are hot properties on this side of the pond -- especially among U.S. moviegoers. Witness the phenomenal success here of The Secret of Roan Inish, in which a 10-year-old Irish girl finds her lost brother living among seals off her country's rugged western coast, or of The Full Monty, wherein working-class Englishmen tackle unemployment through striptease. American audiences seem more receptive than ever to the quirks and follies of the British Isles, whether they find them in Topsy-Turvy or The Crying Game. This in a time when movie imports from Europe have otherwise slowed to a trickle.
The year's first major transatlantic assault on the Yank funny bone is Saving Grace, a relentless charmer about a plucky, middle-class Cornish widow who staves off impending poverty by cultivating marijuana in her greenhouse. Anti-drug crusaders, foreign and domestic, are sure to find the idea singularly unfunny, and that will doubtless please the moviemakers: Any English comedy that fails to pop authority squarely on the nose is scarcely worth watching.
The film's heroine, Grace Trefethan (Brenda Blethyn), descends from an illustrious comic line -- the shy bank clerk who dreamed up a gold heist in The Lavender Hill Mob, the Scottish islanders who expropriated a whiskey-laden shipwreck in Tight Little Island, the distant relative who did away with eight wacky heirs (all played by Alec Guinness) to achieve a dukedom in Kind Hearts and Coronets. It has been nearly half a century since the last of Britain's wickedly funny Ealing comedies was released, but with Saving Grace, Blethyn, her co-stars and director Nigel Cole ably revive that brand of gentle anarchism and general irreverence.
What's wrong with giving up orchids and growing a little pot (a lot of pot, actually) to hold off the banker, the repo man and the auctioneer? Likable, slightly batty Grace, whose philandering clod of a husband has left her with a mountain of debts, is, in the words of one neighbor, simply "carrying on the local tradition of complete and utter contempt for the law."
So, too, are almost all her friends and acquaintances in the picturesque fishing village of Port Liac. Grace's young handyman, Matthew (The Drew Carey Show's Craig Ferguson, who also co-screenwrote); the local general practitioner, Dr. Bamford (Martin Clunes); the church vicar (Leslie Phillips); even the old ladies who run the grocery store have no use at all for puritanism or bureaucracy: They just want to live their lives unbothered.
So when Grace, whose skill is gardening, and Matthew, whose skill is charm, construct an elaborate hydroponic farm in her greenhouse complete with grow lights that illuminate the entire night sky over Port Liac, the villagers not only look the other way, they take a certain delight in the enterprise. As with The Full Monty or the recent Irish farce Waking Ned Devine, there's a heartwarming conspiracy at work here: We're all in this together, don't you know?
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Complications arise, of course. Matthew's girlfriend, Nicky (Valerie Edmond), is secretly pregnant, and she worries for his safety. The bumbling town constable, Sergeant Alfred (Ken Campbell), is usually in tepid pursuit of imaginary salmon poachers, but even he might trip over Grace's new cash crop. And then there's the tricky matter of getting 20 kilos of dynoweed to market: Innocent Grace hasn't been to big, bad London in five years, and she knows nothing whatsoever about the underworld. Nonetheless, this blithe country woman, wearing the same white suit she doubtless once wore to the Chelsea Flower Show, moves through back alleys and drug dens -- with suitably hilarious results.
Director Nigel Cole, a veteran of British TV, and his screenwriters, Ferguson and Mark Crowdy, recapture the dark wit of the old Ealing comedies -- their acknowledged inspiration -- with verve. Who could resist Grace's lament that while she's been left a numbered Swiss bank account, there's not a shilling in it? Or the philosophical buoyancy with which she watches the movers cart table and couch out of her 300-year-old manor house? And when the middle-aged heroine insists on actually sampling the marijuana she's nursed back to health, it's almost as though we're inhaling along with her: Certainly, her case of the giggles is catching. Cheech and Chong would love it.
These moviemakers also have a keen eye for the attractive diversion: A public-house conversation compares the literary merits of Jackie Collins and Franz Kafka, and an encounter between Grace and her dead husband's London mistress, Honey (Diana Quick), is a little masterpiece. Through it all, Brenda Blethyn is sublime. Best known here for her award-winning performance as the white factory worker who reunited with her black daughter in Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies, she's an actress of subtlety and comic depth. Given the playful tone of Saving Grace, we never worry that she's about to be dismembered by tough London gangsters, but we do become increasingly concerned about her future: Is she in the reefer trade to stay?
The writers answer that question with a fairy-tale ending that seems a bit ingenuous and a trifle gooey. But because we've had such a good time getting there, we can live with it. In short, Just Say Yes.