Greenfingers at first appears to be one of those loopy English-made movies about a bunch of lovable Brits who give their all in pursuit of some wacky cause or another and who, win or lose, give us all a reason to rejoice over the indomitable human spirit. Brassed Off and The Full Monty are recent examples of the genre.
Actually, Greenfingers is that kind of movie--except for one tiny detail. Although set in England and inspired by real events there, and although it has a fine cast of English (and one Irish) actors, this gentle social comedy was written and directed by an American, Joel Hershman. Which should not matter one whit, given the fact that both screenwriters and directors work internationally and/or cross-culturally all the time. Think Ang Lee. But there's something off-kilter and a little leaden about Greenfingers, and one can't help but think it's because Hershman--who was born in Brooklyn and raised in Los Angeles--just cannot capture, try as he might, that sublimely silly sense of the ridiculous that is particularly, pecularly, English.
Hershman was inspired to write Greenfingers when he read a 1998 New York Times article about the prize-winning gardens grown by a group of inmates at Her Majesty's Prison Leyhill, a minimum-security facility in England's Cotswolds. Since 1991, Leyhill's gardening teams have been participating in Royal Horticultural Society garden shows at Chelsea and at Hampton Court, where they have won two gold medals. Interestingly, the Times piece used quotes from the leader of the 1998 team, a 39-year-old convicted murderer who was, at the time, due for early parole.
In Greenfingers, Clive Owen (Croupier) plays the fictional thirty-something Colin Briggs, a convicted murderer (who says he killed his own brother by accident in a fit of rage) who's spending his last years of internment at the fictional Edgefield, an open prison in the Cotswolds (a very open prison where afternoon tea and Christmas parties are among the amenities). Uncooperative and anti-social in the extreme, Colin refuses to participate in any of the rehabilitative work projects offered by the kindly warden (Warren Clarke), and he even shuns his cheery and philosophical cell mate, Fergus, played by the elderly, gnome-like David Kelly.
However, when a lovely bunch of violets sprouts from the seeds Fergus had planted in the harsh soil of the prison grounds, Colin is impressed. So is the warden, who decides to organize a gardening team. Colin and Fergus and two other 'lifers,' Tony (Danny Dyer) and Jimmy (Paterson Joseph), are told to pick a plot of ground, come up with a list of gardening supplies and get to it. Before long, these hardened criminals turn into a bunch of softies who really 'dig' their garden and bravely withstand the skeptical taunts of their fellow inmates. Colin, especially, exhibits the fervor of a born-again, avidly consuming the how-to books by England's leading gardening expert, the fictional Georgina Woodhouse (Helen Mirren). In no time at all, Georgina becomes a regular visitor to the prison and develops a keen interest in the redemption-through-gardening concept--urging the garden gang to go for the gold at the Hampton Court garden show. Colin, meanwhile, develops a keen interest in Georgina's daughter, Primrose (Natasha Little).
The script for Greenfingers holds a few fun suprises, but they are far outnumbered by the predictable clichs. Still, the actors are winning, and Mirren seems to be having the best time--getting to flounce around wearing garden-party prints and large, floppy hats. The romantic subplot between Colin and Primrose is neither realistic nor romantic, and the film's most touching moments prove to be those between Colin and the old man, Fergus--who'll soon be pushing up daisies, of course, but not before he tries to fertilize Colin's future with a few life lessons.
Perhaps this would have been a better movie if it had been written and directed by a British filmmaker--one who's a bit more sensitive to the cultural nuances of his/her native culture, and more in tune with the eccentricities of his/her fellow citizens. Or perhaps it would have been better if writer-director Hershman had not adhered quite so rigidly to the formulaic lessons he learned in Scriptwriting 101. Whatever. Greenfingers simply lacks the kind of buoyancy and sponteneity and sheer wackiness we've come to expect in our gentle social comedies from across the pond.