Ridley Scott’s A Good Year is an underappreciated gem that shows us a different side to both the celebrated director and lead star Russell Crowe.
Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe’s partnership in the 2000s proved to be hugely successful, beginning with a Best Picture and Actor win for Gladiator and featuring the well-received American Gangster in 2007. In between these two more successful collaborations sits A Good Year, an adaptation of Peter Mayle’s 2004 novel, written for Scott. The pair were neighbours in Southern France at the time, with Scott desiring to make a fish out of water film featuring an Englishman in Provence.
A Good Year marks a departure from other Scott films, particularly of the era, coming off the back of epics like Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven. It is one of the lighter films in his filmography, more of a straight-up comedy, something not really glimpsed again outside of The Martian’s lighter moments. The shift in genre might account for some of the reviews for the film upon release, with it being one of the poorest-rated films in Scott’s recent filmography.
Max Skinner (Russell Crowe) is a hugely successful yet egotistical banker in the City of London who inherited his Uncle Henry’s (Albert Finney) estate in Provence. Max spent his summers there as a child, with fond memories of his doting, eccentric uncle. In recent years, however, the pair drifted apart, with the world of his uncle a far cry from the glamorous, affluent surroundings of Max’s London lifestyle. Max is initially keen to be rid of the estate as soon as possible, seeking to sell it for a handsome price.
While Max waits for the estate to be valued, including its Vineyard, he becomes smitten with the region and the local culture, and this brings back childhood memories that he has repressed. The second half of the film sees a blossoming romance between Max and the uptight and fiery Fanny Chenal (Marion Cotillard); after a series of confrontational encounters culminating with Max at the bottom of his pool, they become close.
Crowe and Cotillard’s chemistry does a lot of heavy lifting. The pair are a charming onscreen couple. Crowe captures Max’s initial frosty and world-weary nature and makes his ultimate warming and shift in character believable. Finney’s Uncle Henry, who appears via flashbacks, is charming and larger than life, the antithesis of the Max we meet earlier in the film. Tom Hollander is ever dependable as Max’s best friend Charlie who is tasked with valuing the estate and also becomes charmed by the locale.
One of the frequent critiques surrounded Russell Crowe’s comedic timing, in the years since we’ve seen him go on to have success with the likes of The Nice Guys, certainly proving his aptitude for comedic material. If Crowe isn’t as naturally funny as in The Nice Guys, his comedic timing is far from atrocious, helping keep the film together, enfusing it with a natural lightness of touch.
Perhaps one of the film’s drawbacks is the number of subplots, especially once Abbie Cornish’s Christie Roberts arrives on the scene. Christie is a self-described “wine brat” from California who claims to be Henry’s illegitimate daughter and so may have a claim to the estate. On top of this, we have a subplot involving the quality of the wine produced at the vineyard and a secret much nicer vintage made on the estate. While none of these derails the film they do cloud its focus at times, when it may have been easier to focus solely on Max and devote greater attention to his relationship with Fanny.
If still not one of Ridley Scott’s best-loved films, A Good Year justifies a re-evaluation. It is a charming romantic comedy that makes the most of its Provence setting with a fun comedic performance from Russell Crowe and a sense of charm and ease throughout. It is certainly one of the more light and sweeter films in Scott’s oeuvre, but this should not detract from its warmth and fun. Far from a total misfire, this is an under sung and rewarding film with plenty to admire.
A Good Year is now available to watch on digital and on demand.