Import films like ''Saving Grace'' and ''Billy Elliot'' are whimsy overdoses, says Josh Wolk

By Josh Wolk
Updated September 25, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • Movie

Irish and British indies perpetuate stereotypes

As an entertainment writer, I have to make a conscious effort not to let my opinions of foreign lands be affected by the films they export. For example, I shouldn’t assume that in Tokyo I run the risk of being kicked in the throat by a Ninja. And in Denmark, I’m sure not everyone is victimized by soul crushing tragedy on a daily basis like in one of the Dogma films. But most importantly, I must keep in mind that not all towns in England, Ireland, or Australia are stocked with inhabitants so quaint that you want to beat some cynicism into them with a stale scone.

But consider these current films: There’s ”Saving Grace” — the summer’s top grossing indie film — in which Brenda Blethyn’s tiny hamlet is populated entirely by sweetly doddering eccentrics, much like the towns in ”Waking Ned Devine” (lottery playin’ Irish folk), ”The Full Monty” (stripping for cash Brits), ”The Castle” (airport hating Aussies), and ”The Snapper” (knocked up, twee Irish lass). At the recent Toronto Film Festival, I saw two upcoming examples of encroaching quaintness: Australia’s ”The Dish,” with Sam Neill as a satellite dish engineer in a low tech town, and ”Greenfingers,” about gardening prison inmates (the anti ”Oz”) with ”Croupier”’s Clive Owen and ”Ned Devine” nudie David Kelly. And there was buzz aplenty for ”Billy Elliot,” Universal’s October release about a young boy who proves incompetent at boxing but is a ballet ingenue. Crikey, blimey, and holy haggis… I smell whimsy!

These lighthearted, upbeat films always feel like what you’d get if you’d cast real people, not cartoons, for the Keebler Elves commercials. There’s inevitably a clueless police officer, an out of touch clergyman prone to phumphering at the slightest bawdy reference, a few desiccated old gossipy biddies, and, of course, the one young couple who find love amongst the quirkiness. The kind of population who, if faced with the threat of nuclear war, would just blink blankly for a few minutes and then return to cooking up a scheme to bake the biggest mince pie ever.

It makes you wonder if America is the only English speaking country with towns that actually contain the occasional pessimist. Consider that while we’re importing cottonball tales where the only enemy is the bureaucratic villain who flies in from the mythical ”big city,” our contribution to world cinema is muscle bound matinee idols firing at drug dealers on motorcycles. Although thankfully, we’re not the only English speakers with a dark side: Canada gave us orifice freak David Cronenberg and psychotrauma expert Atom Egoyan (”The Sweet Hereafter”), who may set his stories in small towns, but at least has the common courtesy to quash their irrepressibility with a school bus crash.

This is not to say that puffy comedies are the only stories our friends across the ocean can make. England also gave us ”Trainspotting,” which wasn’t exactly ”Peyton Place,” as well as the shoot ’em up ”Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” and Ireland has directors Neil Jordan (”Michael Collins”) and Jim Sheridan (”The Boxer”) who are more than happy to give us a peek at ”the trewbles.” But these anti screwballs seem in the minority, the same way that Hollywood can occasionally make a happy go lucky slice of life tale (”Groundhog Day,” ”Mumford”) but then it’s right back to figuring out creative new ways for serial killers to skin their victims.

Perhaps it’s unfair to judge an entire country on the movies we see here, since this is only the sample that American distributors choose to showcase, perhaps as a PR stunt to keep U.S. citizens from traveling abroad. I know when I see old fashioned, low tech lands where a well crafted joke is valued more than a computer generated exploding head, I have less of a desire to leave the land of blockbusters and rampant profanity. However, I shouldn’t judge a country by what I see in theaters and should go visit to check the reality. But when I go, I’m bringing a stale scone just in case.

Saving Grace

  • Movie
  • R
  • 93 minutes
  • Nigel Cole