starring Clive Owen, Helen Mirren, David Kelly, Natasha Little
written and directed by Joel Hershman
by Walter Chaw A disturbingly optimistic (and particularly unlikely) redemption fable from Britain that marries the bare blue-collar buttocks of The Full Monty with the spunky seniors of Waking Ned Devine and Saving Grace, Joel Hershman's Greenfingers is less "inspired by a true story," as its title cards suggest, than it is "slavishly devoted to formula." Greenfingers is so entrenched in provincialism that it encourages American audiences to chuckle knowingly at the staid peculiarities of the English--and so dedicated to soft-pedalling dangerous criminals that it reveals itself as preachy and pernicious. It is the type of film that treats anyone with the audacity to question the wisdom of allowing murderers and rapists to serve out their sentences with no guards around and in the company of young women driving Rolls Royces as the worst kind of close-minded fascist. By the twentieth time its simpleminded mantra (bringing a life into the world instead of taking one can change a hardened heart) is summoned literally and imagistically, culminating in a grotesque effigy of a fallen friend posed in the middle of an indistinct tableau, Greenfingers has lost all power to instruct and become something at once odious and unintentionally funny.
This tale of hardcore British prisoners who discover joy in horticulture (inspired by a 1998 New York Times article) is hampered by director Hershman's inability to create understanding in the allure and release of gardening. The source of that disconnection with the film's central, vital trope is twofold: a lack of compelling characters, and a lack of compelling gardens--cardboard artists and their indecipherable art. Clive Owen's (Croupier) Colin has served fifteen years for the "accidental" murder of his brother. His crusty, wise, and terminally ill mentor/bunkmate Fergus (David Kelly), incarcerated for the "alcohol-related" murder of three wives, gives Colin a packet of seeds one Christmas, inspiring in Colin an indefatigable urge to coax life from the barren clay of the Edgewater Open Prison.
Though there seems to be the potential germination of something poignant in the interplay between men of violence and the passive art of gardening, Greenfingers is far more interested in smoothing over the misdeeds and imperfections of its anonymous character types to get at the flat platitudes that comprise its heart. From the tortured family man, to the brute with a gentle soul, to the obligatory love interest, Greenfingers is not so much about the sea changes that sometimes come over real people, but a dim-witted allegory about a literal gathering of rosebuds.
Helen Mirren is as predictably fantastic as her limited role allows her to be. Playing a potty-breed-of-flower celebrity that has as its only American counterpart the decidedly feral Martha Stewart, Mirren displays an earthy toughness that serves to illustrate just how far Greenfingers departs from its potential for either wicked satire or light homespun Local Hero observational comedy. Moments with Mirren are infused with a sudden lightness and wit that are like the sudden blooming in the dreary prison yard of the film. Clive Owen possesses a certain Gary Cooper-ish leading man understatement that, when coupled with his David Strathairn looks, lends the actor a grave veracity the film's minimal aspirations betray. One is left with the unfortunate struggle of trying to equivocate both his and Mirren's performances as transcending the material and making the best of a hopeless situation. The most unforgivable failing of Greenfingers is that it neither trusts its audience with ambiguity and complexity, nor its capable actors to convey the same.
While it's admittedly churlish to throw stones at the British for latching tenaciously to the one non-Guy Ritchie formula that has provided a glimmer of promise for their flagging film industry of late, it is hoped that Greenfingers is the last in a string of pathologically cheerful imports focusing on small-time losers gaining miniscule and bittersweet victories over the symbolic smallness of their lives. Lazy, saccharine, and shameless in its broad machinations, Greenfingers is an ingratiating feel-good movie that is distant even when taking its audience for granted. It is the worst of its genre: a hollow, unexamined fruit blighted on a rigidly prescribed vine, and no amount of indulgent pandering can cure it of its torpor. Originally published: August 8, 2001.