The Shawshank Flower Show Redemption?
A charming look at the particularly English passion of gardening, Greenfingers is a light cinematic repast with grace notes of humor, romance and tragedy. On our favorite shiny disc, Columbia TriStar gives us a fine technical presentation but little else.
Facts of the Case
Taciturn Colin Briggs (Clive Owen) is not at all pleased when he is transferred from his usual prison to H.M.P. Edgefield, an "open prison" for the most trusted of prisoners that relies upon self-restraint and not the usual security measures like razor wire, high walls, and cameras. Having spent most of his adult life incarcerated for the murder of his own brother, Colin has come to believe that he deserves to remain in prison for his crime. His new roommate, triple lifer Fergus Wilks (David Kelly) tries to draw Colin out, but with little success until Fergus gives Colin a simple packet of violet seeds as a Christmas present.
When the violets bloom despite poor soil and long odds, prison Governor Hodge (Warren Clarke) puts Colin to work as the head of Edgefield's garden detail, ably assisted by Fergus, along with surly soccer players Raw (Adam Fogerty), Jimmy (Paterson Joseph), and Tony (Danny Dyer). Colin's newfound passion for gardening gains the attention of gardening maven Georgina Woodhouse (Helen Mirren). With her help, the Edgefield gardeners look to find a way to enter the highly competitive Hampton Court Palace Flower Show. Persevering despite criminal setbacks and parole difficulties, Colin even manages to encourage a budding romance with Georgina's shy daughter, Primrose (Natasha Little). Will the prison gardening team succeed? Will they gain their freedom? Will Colin win Primrose's heart? Only the ending will tell.
As you can see from my dossier here at the Verdict, I deal with the criminal element on a daily basis. I read the details of their crimes, become familiar with their backgrounds, and contemplate the debris they leave behind. The criminal class is overwhelmingly composed of the terminally stupid, the drug-addled, the amoral, the perverted, the predatory, the vicious, and the just plain evil. Murderers, and the near-murderers, are generally and properly the worst of the lot. They "accidentally" stab a person 69 times over a $20 drug debt, drive their girlfriend out into the middle of nowhere and turn her into a gasoline-soaked torch, or turn their ex-wife into a human Pez dispenser in front of their child. When someone goes so far beyond the rules of civilized society that they rob a person of all they have and ever will have, you are dealing with a uniquely dangerous person.
That is reality. That is also not Greenfingers.
In this film, you will find some of the nicest, most convivial, and generally attractive lot of murderers and criminals you will ever see. As a matter of fact, none of the criminals in Greenfingers have more than mildly negative facets. This is somewhat remarkable even in the prison-film genre, where usually somebody acts like a criminal, though usually to serve as the lead character's implacable antagonist. If you can swallow the uniquely sunny premise of Greenfingers, then you are all set for a pleasant film about four prisoners who form an unlikely gardening alliance and persevere against the odds. If not, then boy, have you picked up the wrong movie!
However, if you are able to suspend your disbelief, then despite the premise you should find Greenfingers to be a pleasantly British diversion. The story proceeds along fairly predictable lines, though the execution of the scenes is sufficient to maintain the entertainment even if you are able to foretell the path. Some portions, notably the family estrangement arc involving Paterson Joseph (The Beach), or the expected romance between demure Natasha Little (The Criminal) and Clive Owen, seem forced.
What saves Greenfingers from obvious triteness are the skills of the deep cast. The core is the teacher-student/father-son pairing of Clive Owen (Croupier, Gosford Park) and David Kelly (Waking Ned Devine, Ordinary Decent Criminals). David Kelly is simply the shining star of Greenfingers, infusing the smallest of gestures and vocal tones with meaning and emotion. Clive Owen, one of many nominated 007 successors, is a bit too solid-faced for the role, but nevertheless holds our interest and sympathy. Helen Mirren (2010, the British Prime Suspect series, The Passion of Ayn Rand) tucks into her role as leader and subverter of floral society with evident relish. Young heart-stealer Danny Dyer, muscular mountain Adam Fogerty (The Man Who Knew Too Little, Snatch), and Warren Clarke (A Clockwork Orange, Firefox, the British Dalziel and Pascoe series) complete the solid acting recipe.
The anamorphic video is quite beautiful. The abundant colors are splendidly saturated, sharpness varies from very good to excellent, and digital artifacts are kept in check. Blacks are solid and flesh tones are accurate. The occasional softness, a less than commendable control of dirt and defects, and a mild film grain detract from the overall picture.
The superb musical choices made for Greenfingers greatly overshadow the merits of the Dolby Digital 5.1 track. Including songs by Tears for Fears, Sting, U2, Bruce Springsteen, and Elton John/Little Richard, the music energizes the story and enhances the emotions. On technical grounds, the audio track is a solidly done affair, filling the front soundstage with vibrant music and clear dialogue and eschewing obtrusive sound engineer tricks.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
In considering the merits of a film, often a good first step is to examine a writer or director's previous efforts. For Greenfingers, this is only writer/director Joel Hershman's second film after the trailer-trashy Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me. To say that his prior effort was not well received is perhaps to understate the critical response. When a critic such as the Washington Post's Rita Kempley describes you as "arrogant" and "annoying" and your film as a "shoddy irritant" whose financiers "were expecting a porn film for the Korean video market," there's not much left to say, is there? Given the eight year gap in his IMDb résumé and the jump to drastically different fare with Greenfingers, I can only wonder what Hershman felt about the situation.
A four-pack of trailers (Greenfingers, The Tao of Steve, Still Crazy, and Living It Up: La Gran Vida) is the only extra content. This is particularly disappointing when a film is "based on true events." A commentary track, an interview with writer/director Joel Hershman, even a PR-fluff featurette, any of these could have left us with some understanding of the events inspiring the film. Seeing how Joel Hershman's last film was, I am interested to see how he jumped to this material of a very different sort.
If you aren't averse to indulging a light-hearted, inspirational prison fantasy flick, Greenfingers ($24.95 list) is a worthy film for the romantics and the Anglophiles among you. If you are a jaded cynic or maybe a cop, prosecutor, or prison guard, then you may want to think hard before giving Greenfingers a spin.
The Court finds Greenfingers guilty of predictability and fantasy, but fine acting and music substantially mitigate the Defendant's culpability. Columbia TriStar is admonished for the lack of extra content.
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