Thursday, January 31, 2013

I finally saw: The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain

It looks like I was scratching a lot of long-gestating cinematic itches this past weekend. First From Dusk Till Dawn on Saturday, then this on Sunday.

And what was so significant about finally seeing The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain?

Well, I'll tell you.

The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain has long been my go-to movie when looking for an example of something with an unwieldy title or something that would sound fairly arcane. In fact, I just searched, and I've used it that way exactly four times on my blog. Here are the examples:

4/16/09: Lame of name

"And without even a memorable title to distinguish them, these films endure no better than half-remembered trailer fragments. Two years after they've left theaters, they're totally gone from even the bear-trap minds of the hardcore cinephiles.

The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain? Now there's a film I can remember."

3/26/10: How (not) to advertise your movie

"If they really didn't think we would be able to handle the outrageous grammatical complexity and highfalutin vocabulary of the title How to Train Your Dragon, they should have called it something else. It's not like it's The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain. It's not like it's Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan."

8/14/10: Tainted!

"Both Mission: Impossible III and Inside Man were part of the initial 300-400 movies they give you automatically when you first join Flickchart, movies that are considered the most popular. (They do this so that new Flickcharters aren't immediately confronted with My Dinner With Andre and The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain)."

8/3/12: No "short wait" to revisit the original

"If a title is really popular -- say, Star Wars -- then Netflix probably keeps a dozen copies at any given distribution center. (I'm just throwing out numbers here -- I only have a vague idea of how large each distribution center is, and how many distribution centers there are.)  But if the movie is not very popular -- say, The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain -- then one or two copies per center would suffice."

Yeah, maybe I need to choose a new movie to use in this scenario. Actually, I have done so already, and would do so more if I didn't have to look up the damn title -- Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles -- every time.

The Englishman had been on our instant queue for some time, and it was one of the top three movies my wife seemed most enthusiastic about every time we passed it, so I knew it would get watched sooner rather than later. Sunday night, that time finally came, and I felt like I was finally putting my money where my mouth was.

Actually, there were reasons other than my love affair with the title that I might have seen this movie sooner. In my mind, I've been carrying on a love affair with its lead actress -- you know, the kind that takes place between a movie lover and an exquisitely charming star -- for nearly 20 years. I became smitten with British actress Tara Fitzgerald when I first saw her in A Man of No Importance back in 1994. I then saw her in Sirens (which I did not like very much) and Brassed Off! (which I liked quite a bit), but never (until now) saw her only other prominent movie ... well, ever. (She transitioned to being a TV actress pretty much full time in the mid-2000s, having made a handful of movies I've never heard of in the early part of that decade.) There's just something so button cute about this woman.

I also consider myself a Hugh Grant fan, so there's that as well.

So how did Hugh, Tara and the movie acquit themselves? And most importantly -- that title. Is it literal, or metaphorical?

Well, let's start with the title. It's most definitely literal. In fact, the premise of the possibly true story is quite wonderful, and makes the movie fit in well with the late 1990s trend of blue collar Brits banding together to overcome obstacles (see The Full Monty, Saving Grace and especially Waking Ned Devine, to which this movie is most similar). The "Brits" in this case are actually citizens of Wales, though there are two proper Englishmen in the movie as well (Grant and his stuffy compatriot, played by Ian McNeice). The Englishmen are in Wales (during World War I) for the purposes of cartography. They're using new technology to document the height of Wales' tallest supposed mountain -- which, if it does not exceed 1,000 feet, can only technically be classified as a hill. Swelling with local pride over the difficult-to-pronounce protuberance known as Ffynnon Garw ("Rough Fountain"), the citizen of the town agonize while waiting for the two mapmakers' final analysis of its true height. When Ffynnon Garw comes up just short, the townspeople conspire to artificially add 20 feet of height to their hill, to make it a mountain -- yet must also waylay the two mapmakers in the small village long enough for them to take a second reading, without letting on that that's what they're doing.

Although it's not as memorable nor quite as good as the films mentioned above, it's a damn charming little movie that mostly stays on course. Grant is not in full-on stammering mode, but he does have a couple great comic deliveries, most notably on his several attempts to pronounce the hill's name. He stumbles through these attempts in trademark Grant style, his eyes pleading for help out of a paralysis brought on by awkwardness. Fitzgerald doesn't really show up until the second half of the movie, but that's enough time to have seduced me again with her charms -- though never to the extent that she did in A Man of No Importance (which came out the previous year). Her role is a bit of a comedic one, and leads to some of the film's broadest moments -- not necessarily a good thing. Colm Meaney is worth mentioning as an innkeeper with questionable morals, who brings plenty of good cheer to the proceedings as well.

But perhaps the film's most unexpected surprise is the significant role essayed by Kenneth Griffith. Don't know who that is? I didn't know his name either, but I instantly knew his face, from the film that introduced Grant to most of us: Four Weddings and a Funeral, which happens to be a personal favorite of mine. Here he is in that film:

Still don't remember him? How about this hilarious exchange between his character (who we shall call "Old Man") and Grant's Charles during the first wedding?

Charles: How do you do, my name is Charles.
Old Man: Don't be ridiculous. Charles died 20 years ago.
Charles: Must be a different Charles, I think.
Old Man: Are you saying I don't recognize my own brother?

It's funny even in print, but the senile indignation mustered by Griffith just pushes it over the top.

I think I'd always assumed that this was just some random old man, perhaps a relative of one of the filmmakers, who had never been heard from before or since. Turns out that Griffith had over 100 credits in movies and TV, starting as long ago as 1941. (He died in 2006 at age 84.)

You might say that a little of him goes a longer way, but he's still quite enjoyable in the role of the parish priest, conflicted about asking his parishioners to work on the Sabbath to meet a deadline, but swelling with enough mountain pride to overcome his hesitations. I have to wonder if the actor himself had become a bit senile by this point, as his emotions don't always seem to be on the same page as the other actors' -- a couple times he even seems to be tearing up when the scene doesn't necessarily call for it. But he also produces a couple of those priceless looks of shocked befuddlement that seared him into my memory the first time I ever laid eyes on him, back in 1994.

Looking for a third straight I Finally Saw tomorrow? Too bad. I haven't finally seen anything else since Sunday.


Jandy Hardesty said...

You should start using "Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad" ( for your long movie title. I haven't seen the movie, though.

Vancetastic said...

That's a good one. Does it have anything to do with My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? (Which I thought was a really interesting movie, if you haven't seen it, or even if you have.)