Saving Grace
review by KJ Doughton, 4 August 2000

Saving 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 grinning Matthew.

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."

Saving Grace generates 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.

Directed by:
Nigel Cole

Brenda Blethyn
Craig Ferguson
Martin Clunes
Tcheky Karyo
Valerie Edmond

Written by:
Craig Ferguson
Mark Crowdy




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