review by KJ Doughton, 4 August 2000
Grace could aptly be
described as "Cheech ‘n Chong meets Merchant-Ivory."
Director Nigel Cole’s unlikely pairing of good manners and reefer
madness is certainly inspired, even if the final reel sends this
promising premise drifting into thin air, like a cloud of pot smoke
engulfing a Phish concert. Spinning the offbeat yarn of sheltered
Grace Trevethan (Brenda Blethyn), a Cornwall widow who uses her
greenhouse as a marijuana-growing den to pay off the bills left
behind by an irresponsible spouse, Saving
Grace begins at her late husband’s funeral. Seems his
parachute didn’t open during an ill-fated skydiving adventure,
making him a messy dirt bullet unfit for an open-casket ceremony.
But even in the formal confines of his memorial service, people are
grumbling with such venom that one wonders if the poor schmuck
wasn’t tossed from the plane. "Bastard owes me money,"
whispers one bitter burial attendee.
Left to mop up her deceased hubby's
considerable debt, Grace spends the film morphing from naďve
hot-house flower to proactive schemer. It’s heartbreaking to see
this Cornwall socialite awaken from her bubble of rose cultivating
and ladies’ clubs, only to find a mountain of debt and a mistress
from her spouse’s shady past. Collection agencies and banks haunt
the phone line with persistent calls and threats to claim her house.
Soon, her checks to grounds-keeper Matthew (Craig Ferguson, also the
film’s co-producer and co-screenwriter) are bouncing, and Grace
confronts the magnitude of her desperate situation.
Two-time Academy Award nominee
Brenda Blethyn is superb as a woman in the throes of change. When
her banker announces that Grace is responsible for 300,000 English
pounds, and asks her if there’s anything "tucked away,"
she responds in the manner of a woman kept entirely in the dark
during her passive, unquestioning marriage to this shifty heel.
"We have a Swiss bank account," she chirps hopefully.
"There’s nothing in it, but we’ve got one!" Meanwhile,
the ruffled widow takes up cigarette smoking. Huddled next to a
photo of her not so dearly departed, Grace flicks an ash onto his
portrait. "Bastard," she grumbles bitterly.
Meanwhile, fellow villagers in her
Port Liac stomping grounds offer their support. Local merchants
refuse to let Grace pay for her groceries, and Matthew continues his
allegiance despite her inability to pay him for groundskeeping
duties. There’s a reason for this good-natured employee’s
passivity: it seems that Matthew is cultivating pot plants covertly
at the local cemetery. He’s not the only one in Cornwall to
inhale. Many of the residents in this scrubby, impoverished district
are self-medicating with the leafy sedative, including funeral
guests who hide their doobies while unknowing cops pursue salmon
poachers instead. One of Saving
Grace’s interesting touches is how the film portrays the Port
Liac townsfolk as fiercely loyal to one another, while completely
unconcerned with minor outlaw offenses like reefer rolling.
With the neighborhood casting a
blind eye towards Matthew’s cannabis-growing, and Grace enduring
considerable guilt over her inability to reimburse the loyal bloke,
it’s no great surprise when the down-on-her-luck lady grants
Matthew his request to house pot plants inside her massive
greenhouse. "How much are these plants worth?" she asks.
"The good stuff’s worth more than gold," replies a
Soon, the two are scheming to bail
Grace out of her debt by manufacturing the illicit weed in a
greenhouse previously confined to the less questionable practice of
rose growing. It’s worth a chuckle to see this proper English lady
and her shaggy accomplice sneaking cannabis into the greenhouse,
even as collectors haul furniture out the front door of her home.
Eventually, the suspicious lights emanating from her modified pot
parlor and illuminating the skies like the Close Encounters
mothership have the locals whispering. However, no one in this
rebellious, authority-hating town seems to mind. As a neighborhood
bartender observes, "It seems as though Grace is carrying on
the local tradition of total contempt for the law."
considerable suspense, as the proper lady-cum-pot cultivator dodges
threats from bankers while continuing her daring debt-reduction
scheme. Meanwhile, Blethyn shows Grace’s pain as she continues to
absorb new revelations about her husband’s shady past. Confronting
his mistress, Grace asks the seductress why he’d take on an
outside lover. "I think that he thought you just weren’t
interested," offers the woman. "He thought wrong,"
Grace responds with a betrayed scowl.
Later, there’s a hilarious scene
where this one-time conservative comes out of her shell and samples
her wares. "Will you give me one?" she asks Matthew.
"I want to know what it feels like." The bewildered
gardener does a spit take, mistaking his curious employer’s
comment as a come-on. Later, he introduces her to the pleasures of
reefer madness: think Kid Rock lighting up with Emma Thompson, and
you’ve got some idea of the resulting chemistry.
There are terrific supporting roles
in this Fine Line production, including that of Valerie Edmond as
Matthew’s girlfriend, who’s harboring a secret and angry at her
partner’s descent into this criminal venture. Equally fine is Ken
Campbell as a local policeman who knows more than he lets on.
Meanwhile, another of Saving
Grace’s stars is the Cornish coastal town of Port Liac, with
its gray rock landscapes and emerald hills tucked alongside the
white-capped ocean. Dilapidated buildings mesh with a loud ‘n
proud fishing trade, accented by clusters of crab traps and
fishnets, conveying the look of a scrappy little town with a history
of economic reliance on the sea.
What a shame, then, when Saving
Grace ultimately becomes victim to its own lightness, drifting
away in a cloud of cornball gags. The movie’s earlier tension
dissolves completely when potentially dangerous drug dealers are
revealed to be innocuous putzes with hearts of gold, and the local
cop turns out to be anything but a threat to Grace and her merry
clan of would-be outlaws. Suppose Grace found that she enjoyed this
forbidden foray into the dark and daring. That would be an intriguing – if more challenging – path to
take. As it stands, Cole is striving for light comedy, not edgy
fare. The result is that this feel-good farce delivers moments that
echo the spirit of similar UK triumphs like Waking
Ned Devine, even if
the wrap-up feels like a safe cop-out.