Admittedly, my initial response to Nigel Cole’s Saving Grace was that it is not particularly intellectual. Rather, it is decidedly cute. Filmmakers, actors, and critics tend to cringe at the word (as do I), but in this case, it fits. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because underneath the overtly comedic story of a middle-aged, very conservative, very proper, and very broke English woman trying to save her 300-year-old Cornish manor home through massive hydroponic pot production churns a subtext of anxieties about stereotypes, power, identity, and sexuality.
Co-written and produced by Mark Crowdy and The Drew Carey Show‘s Craig Ferguson, Saving Grace tells the story of Grace Trevethen (the fabulous Brenda Blethyn), a champion gardener and now penniless widow thanks to her husband’s poor apparent suicide (he jumped out of a plane without a parachute), and the ill-fated business ventures that come to light after his death. The film opens with preparations for the funeral: Matthew (Ferguson) sings cheerfully while digging the grave, occasionally leaning on his shovel to smoke a joint; Nicki (Valerie Edmond) jumps off a fishing boat in wading boots and a slicker, peeling them off to reveal a tasteful black dress fitting for the service and delivers Matthew his suit; Grace clips an orchid from a plant in her green house and pins it to her black coat.
The camera pulls back to an aerial shot showing the tiny funeral procession as it winds its way uphill. The main point of interest here is not really the funeral, but the dramatic landscape. Setting in Cole’s film functions in much the way it does in several (most?) well-known films set in the U.K., such as Far and Away, or The Field: it’s endowed with such personality and power that it is almost a character in itself. On the other hand, landscape (especially, it seems, in films about colonized peoples) serves as a kind of shorthand, situating the characters and allowing the audience easy assumptions regarding the culture. In Saving Grace, the striking Cornish coast that dwarfs both the mourners and the village stereotypes them as quaint, simple, perhaps somewhat rustic, and thoroughly cut off from the modern world. The film then works to undermine those stereotypes.
One month after her husband’s funeral, we see Grace running her errands in the village; shopping and settling her accounts. The only problem is no one will accept her money: the shop owners Margaret and Diana (Phyllida Law and Linda Kerr Scott) tell Grace they lost their account book. And a woman collecting for charity refuses to allow Grace to drop any change in her can. Grace is thoroughly confused until she sees her banker and finds out that her late husband had dwindled away their savings, mortgaged their home to the hilt, and borrowed against everything he owned: every piece of property, furniture, even the lawnmower. In a typical presentation of a small town gossip mill, Grace is the last one to know that she’s lost everything and is now utterly destitute. She has no assets, no income, and no skills save gardening. Despite her efforts to avoid her creditors, her house is slowly emptied of its possessions and slated for auction. Poor Grace even has to fire Matthew, her lawn boy and general handyman.
It is from the hapless and perpetually boyish Matthew that Grace’s inspiration comes. He and the town physician, Dr. Bramford (Martin Clunes), have secretly been growing a few marijuana plants on the vicarage grounds. Because the plants must remain hidden, he plants them among a group of trees where they are constantly shaded and therefore doing poorly. Horrified at the prospect of a long winter sans reefer, Matthew turns to Grace for help, thinking she’s too naive to know what the plants are. She’s not. She struggles momentarily with the idea of helping Matthew, uncomfortable with participating in something illegal. Her resistance is fleeting, however, and she begins to scoop up the ailing herbage, stating with a self-conscious seriousness worthy of ER : “I’m a gardener. And these are sick plants.” Practically overnight, the plants, under the careful attention of Grace and in the shelter of her greenhouse, are thriving and producing new buds.
You can see where this is going. Grace decides that with her hydroponic savvy she can mass-produce the stuff quickly, go to London, make a drug deal , and save her house. What ensues are very typical but amusing antics as Grace and Matthew try to keep things under wraps (not realizing that theirs is the most well-known secret in town). She tries out her product (accompanied by much laughing, many “epiphanies,” and lots of munchies), and the most unlikely villagers end up stoned by accident, most notably Margaret and Diana, who mistake the dried leaves for tea and end up eating half the inventory of their store while collapsing with giggles behind the counter. Even the local policeman winds up stoned in the end, dancing around on Grace’s lawn completely naked save his hat. As I said in the beginning, a lot of Saving Grace is cute.
Despite such silliness, there are some pretty poignant scenes and even a few thought-provoking ones. For instance, Grace finally comes face to face with her husband’s mistress, Honey (Diana Quick). For years, Mr. Trevethan had his wife post letters to his lover, apparently thinking she didn’t know what was going on, but when Grace runs into Honey in the cemetery, she recites her (Honey’s) address by way of declaring that a) she was not fooled all these years, and b) she played her husband a fool by never mailing the letters. The two women return to Grace’s home. Over wine, Grace asks, “How did you handle sex?” and they both burst out laughing as if they are sharing an inside joke. “Like flogging a dead horse wasn’t it?!” Grace laughs. Honey slowly stops laughing: “No, not really.” In the way that only Brenda Blethyn can pull off, Grace’s laughter slowly and subtly dissolves into humiliated tears. Honey tells her that he thought Grace wasn’t interested in sex. “He was wrong,” Grace states before asking Honey to go. Watching Grace’s obvious humiliation and rejection is painful, but it’s also reassuring to realize that she has found pride and power in acknowledging, even claiming, that sexual desire was/is still very much a part of her identity.
It’s a revelation that, like the pot growing/smoking, undercuts Grace’s stereotypical stuffy Englishwoman image, in an engagingly personal way. The women’s relationship deepens when Grace turns to Honey for help after she gets arrested in London while trying to make a drug deal. Honey is more worldly than Grace and rescues her, only to have Grace take the lead and show resolve, cunning, and strength when they begin dealing with Jacques (Tcheky Karyo), the weird French dealer who agrees to buy Grace’s merchandise, all 20 kilos. On meeting the dealer, Honey faints with fear. Grace, on the other hand, negotiates.
I won’t give away the ending to Saving Grace, which is funny and even a little bit clever, but I will say this: the film does undercut many of its stereotypes. The small-time drug dealer, a tattooed biker type, listens to polka music, plays D & D with his wife, and tries to weasel out of a creepy dealing situation by excusing himself to pick up his daughter at her flute lessons. Nicki, the most beautiful girl in town, is a fisherman and more often than not appears covered with fish blood and guts (still beautiful though, of course). Jacques is a seedy dealer and potential mutilator who winds up a soft-spoken, sexy, wine connoisseur. And the simple folks of the village, who seem so clueless compared to the visiting Londoners, and, well, us, are in fact wise to everything going on and ultimately congratulate Grace for participating in “the local tradition of complete and utter contempt for the law.”
When it’s all said and done, Saving Grace isn’t particularly deep, though it does have subversive moments. Still, like Waking Ned Devine and The Full Monty, it does overplay the charming and sometimes, the trite (i.e., Grace’s final words to Matthew: “You’re a terrible gardener, but you helped me to grow”). Nevertheless, Saving Grace is a fun film to watch, and as always, Brenda Blethyn is worth the price of admission.