Ridley Scott’s “A Good Year” (2006)

At sixty-nine years of age, and with fourteen feature films under his belt, director Ridley Scott had seemingly done everything there was to do.  He had directed lavish historical epics, groundbreaking science fiction adventures, pulpy action thrillers, and even the occasional fleet-footed caper or two.  There was perhaps one blind spot left— one that nobody would ever expect a director of Scott’s sensibilities to tackle: the romantic comedy. One could be forgiven for thinking that Scott — cinema’s favorite cigar-chomping workaholic — might not have a sentimental bone in his body, but one also need look no further than his all-consuming affection for Jack Russell terriers to see the old softie’s big heart.  Fresh off the production of his 2005 short “JONATHAN”, commissioned for the socially-conscious omnibus film ALL THE INVISIBLE CHILDREN, Scott turned his development attentions towards the creature comforts of home.  He being an internationally celebrated filmmaker and the head of his own production empire, Scott’s version of “home” wasn’t necessarily a McMansion in Beverly Hills, but rather a modest vineyard in the Provence region of southern France.  Having lived there for the previous fifteen years, Scott understandably desired to express his love for the area by making it the backdrop of a film— he just needed the right story to go along with it. To accomplish this considerable task, he approached Peter Mayle, an old colleague from his commercial directing heyday in the 70’s and now his neighbor in Provence (2).  Mayle was primarily a novelist; an otherwise irrelevant fact had it not been for Mayle’s insistence on writing their joint venture as a book and not a screenplay. Screenwriter Marc Klein was subsequently brought in to adapt Mayle’s novel, which entangled a breezy romance with the fate of an inherited vineyard. The rest fell into place fairly quickly, with Scott Free head Lisa Ellzey and frequent executive producer Branko Lustig stepping in to oversee Scott’s management of a $35 million budget— a significant drawdown in resources considering the lavish production value of his previous film, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (2005), but an appropriate figure nonetheless for a film of this scale. The end result — 2006’s A GOOD YEAR — would debut as Scott’s very first romantic comedy, and likely his last.

Set in the present day, A GOOD YEAR finds Russell Crowe returning to Scott’s fold for the first time since 2000’s GLADIATOR, subsequently initiating a string of no less than three consecutive collaborations.  Just as Scott is working far outside the boundaries of his comfort zone here, so too is Crowe, who subverts his on-screen image as a gruff stoic to portray a smarmy and conceited London banker named Max Skinner.  Impeccably dressed and meticulously groomed, Max is a ruthless, filthy rich capitalist perpetually chasing down the Almighty Dollar. This lifestyle has left him emotionally bankrupt and isolated— he has no family or significant other of his own, let alone close friends.  One day, he receives word that his beloved Uncle Henry has died, leaving Max with a modest vineyard in Provence. Seen in flashbacks in the form of Albert Finney (a familiar face in Scott’s canon, having appeared in 1977’s THE DUELLISTS), Uncle Henry is revealed to the father figure that Max never had.  A refined bachelor with a taste for fine wine and finer women, Uncle Henry would welcome Max into his house every summer, teaching him everything he knows about the art of winemaking.  While Max drifted apart from Uncle Henry upon reaching adulthood, he nevertheless has hollowed out a cavernous space for the old playboy in his heart— a fact he’s quite viscerally reminded of as he returns to survey the beautiful grounds as part of a plan to sell the vineyard off for a tidy profit, and with it, the last vestiges of his idyllic childhood.  As the film unfolds, however, he comes to realize that this crumbling house in the country is the closest thing he has to a home; the eccentric groundskeepers the closest thing he has to a family.  A GOOD YEAR satisfies its romantic angle by providing Max with a love interest in the form of Marion Cotillard’s Fanny Cheryl, a feisty and stubborn local who owns her own restaurant in town.  She’s everything he’s not — sensitive, soulful, insightful — and their conflict-laden courtship provides Max with a real opportunity for personal growth. There’s also a subplot involving Abbie Cornish as Christie Roberts, a young American who unexpectedly shows up on the vineyard’s doorstep claiming to be Henry’s long-lost daughter.  A self-professed wine brat herself, Christie helps Max see the emotional value of the vineyard, in the process positioning herself as the appropriate heir to Henry’s legacy. The film’s larger supporting cast peppers A GOOD YEAR with flavor, whether it’s Tom Hollander as Max’s dry-humored colleague, Freddie Highmore’s portrayal of a bespectacled younger Max in flashbacks, or even Scott’s wife, Giannina Facio, making a brief cameo as a hostess as a swanky London restaurant.  

With the exception of editor Dody Dorn, A GOOD YEAR mostly dispenses with Scott’s established roster of technical collaborators in favor of all-new ones.  Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd gives the 2.35:1 35mm film frame a sun-kissed vibrancy, constantly employing the warm, romantic glow of late afternoon.  Working within Scott’s established blue/orange palette, Le Sourd uses color to differentiate the pastoral Provence sequences from those set back in London, which are rendered in a heavy, almost monochromatic cerulean hue.  An earthy, autumnal palette defines the bulk of the film, painting Henry’s vineyard and the surrounding Provence region with swatches of red, orange, green and yellow. Scott’s aesthetic primarily employs a mix of formalistic and contemporary camerawork, but A GOOD YEAR finds the seasoned director opting for a looser approach— arguably the closest thing to a vacation this particular workaholic has taken in years.  A nimble, restless camera constantly weaves through the film’s scenery, letting itself find organic compositions rather than labor between predetermined marks.  This style isn’t to be confused with the inquisitive wandering of someone like director Terrence Malick; indeed, Scott’s camera still moves with purpose and direction, endeavoring to provide answers rather than ask questions.  Newcomer Sonja Krause proves adept at providing highly-detailed and immersive production designs that allow Scott ample latitude to inject signature atmospherics like curtains, silhouettes, smoke, and dark interiors primarily exposed by window-light.  A GOOD YEAR was shot primarily (if not entirely) on location, in venues that Scott claims were all no more than an eight minute drive from his home (1).  Krause’s set dressings imbue an already-authentic suite of locales with a rich personal history for the film’s characters, allowing the audience to experience Max’s memories as their own.  A GOOD YEAR’s easygoing vibe extends to the score, composed by Marc Streitenfeld.  Now a well-regarded composer in his own right with several contributions to Scott’s canon, Streitenfeld had initially been a protege of Scott’s frequent collaborator, Hans Zimmer, before he was invited to work on A GOOD YEAR.  Streitenfeld embraces breezy whistles and a languid accordion to imbue the score with a degree of eccentricity beyond the usual orchestration, further complementing Scott’s eclectic mix of vintage French tunes, cheeky contemporary pop, and sleazy Euro techno (played for comedic effect, of course).

Despite its evocative backdrop, there’s no getting around the fact that A GOOD YEAR isn’t exactly the most groundbreaking of plots.  It’s one we’ve seen many times before, in countless iterations.  Scott’s unique qualities as an artist give A GOOD YEAR its sole distinctiveness.  His effortless ability to conjure immersive cinematic worlds makes the film feel much more vibrant than it probably is, allowing us to bask in the rustic ambience of the French countryside, or experience the harried chaos of a British stock exchange.  Cotillard and Cornish’s rich performances further point to Scott’s strengths with female characterization, with the stubborn and defiant Cotillard taking playful satisfaction in her flirtatious emasculation of Crowe during a centerpiece sequence that sees him trapped at the bottom of an empty pool, while Cornish preoccupies herself with solving the mystery of her origins.  The presence of a Jack Russell terrier (Scott’s favorite dog breed) and the throwaway inclusion of a line from David Lean’s LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962) (a formative film for Scott that he’s pulled from several times throughout his career) evidence Scott taking the opportunity to playfully indulge his own personal quirks throughout.  Just as the film espouses the virtues of a simpler life, so too does Scott take the message to heart, letting his hair down with a casual, unpretentious approach. So much of Scott’s filmography is preoccupied with the appearance of “work” — intimidating logistics, complicated set-ups, the wrangling of massive crowds — that it’s nice to finally see the seasoned director at play.

It’s likely a good thing that Scott and company approached A GOOD YEAR with little expectations, as the finished result has met with arguably the harshest reception of his career.  Critics panned the film across the board, turned off by Scott and Crowe’s attempts to branch out into new artistic territory (3).  To them, this was a neighborhood that neither man who had no business being in. The film’s financial success was exceedingly modest, turning a profit of several million dollars above its production budget.  However, films made at the studio level need to profit much more than “a few million” to be deemed a financially viable endeavor, so Twentieth Century Fox’s quick dismissal of A GOOD YEAR as a flop comes as no surprise.  Easily one of the least-regarded of Scott’s films, A GOOD YEAR’s lackluster legacy is evident even in its treatment by the home video sector— despite seeing a theatrical release during the initial rollout of the format, the film has yet to see a high definition Blu Ray come to market.  Over ten years removed from its release, the overriding sentiment surrounding A GOOD YEAR is that it’s undone by a saccharine earnestness that rings hollow coming from Scott.  He needs the bracing edge of his bread-and-butter films: the grimy historical epics, the ambitious science-fiction thrillers, the dangerous adventures in exotic faraway lands.  A GOOD YEAR is easily overwhelmed by the weight of Scott’s larger legacy, so it must be regarded by its own singular merits if it stands any chance of being regarded at all.  It’s an indulgent film, yes, but it is nonetheless a window into an insular world with its own customs and culture. It’s a visual confection about the sweet, simple pleasures of European country living — fine wine, beautiful surroundings, large families — so perhaps a little indulgence is called for.  If anyone’s earned the right, it’s Scott.

A GOOD YEAR is currently available on standard definition DVD via Twentieth Century Fox.

Credits:

Written by: Marc Klein

Produced by: Ridley Scott, Lisa Ellzey & Branko Lustig (Executive Producers)

Director of Photography: Philippe Le Sourd

Production Designer: Sonja Klaus

Edited by: Dody Dorn

Music by: Marc Streitenfeld

References:

  • IMDB Trivia Page