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Down the Garden Path: Clive Owen and Natasha Little talk to the plants in Joel Hershman's 'Greenfingers.'

Weeds

'Greenfingers' is an underfertilized comedy about convict gardening

By Richard von Busack

MY PRINCIPAL DISCONTENT with being a journalist is that it interferes with my gardening. I'd hoped that Greenfingers would combine business with pleasure, but it didn't happen that way.

This British film is like a weak Ealing comedy of the 1950s, with various adorable characters muddling through against the background of the charming English countryside. The subject is the British passion for gardening, examined through a work-release program that allows convicts at a minimum-security prison to hone their flower-raising skills.

In real life, some English convicts have won prizes at exhibition garden competitions. So Greenfingers is "inspired by a true story." That wording is used more frequently in advertising, because "inspired by" is more inspirational than "based on."

This inspirational story could have been genuinely inspirational. It's a tale of redemption of a part of the population generally written off, brought back through the nurturing of the plants--and it can be tremendously encouraging to raise them. The film quotes George Bernard Shaw: "Heaven can be found by digging," an idea that recurs from Virgil to Voltaire to Mao. Yes, as long as your livelihood doesn't depend on what you're growing.

In Greenfingers, the convicts are gardening on the orders of their warden and later work for hire in the yards of upper-class people. Unconsciously, Greenfingers reveals the underside of the fantasy of spiritual recovery through gardening. The film proposes that gardening is great manly work for the lower orders (in a colonial plantation, for example?).

Except for the lead, the cast consists of standard prison-movie caricatures, with David Kelly especially terrible, twinkling away as the Irish charmer of a lifer. Helen Mirren is the real star, playing an arrogant and famous gardening author. She is better than her dialogue, which stands on the border of wit but never crosses. In her best line, she says, pointing at a flower, "When I see that coxcomb, I am reminded of my late husband."

Her daughter, "Primrose," is the love interest and is indeed prim; Natasha Little has all of Mirren's haughtiness and none of her magnetism. The male lead, Colin, a bottled-up con played by Clive Owen, may be the one who gives the movie as much force as it has.

I don't want to overpraise Owen, but I've seen the young Sean Connery in a number of movies, and he was just as awkward and not much better looking. In this twitty film, Owen does his best, even putting up with a most cute opening: a smash-and-grab robbery on a flower shop he commits so he can break back into prison.

Still, Greenfingers is cursed with a basic lack of garden porn: too many exteriors, not enough flowers. It's a species of mild torture to watch prisoners whacking weeds when distracted by the thought of how badly one's own strawberries need mulching. The price of a ticket is better spent on bat guano, which, I swear, makes those tomatoes grow like kudzu vines.


Greenfingers (R; 91 min.), directed and written by Joel Hershman, photographed by John Daly and starring Clive Owen and Helen Mirren, opens Friday at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz.

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From the September 26-October 3, 2001, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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