Another of those yearly comedy entries into the United States from the British Isles in the best tradition of "The Full Monty", "Waking Ned" and "Brassed Off". These films have similar virtues: low budgets, relatively unknown casts, simple stories that involve human foibles, comedy that arises from the central issue, a central issue that affects lives that most of us can relate to, and more.
The cast in these films is usually headed by one actor who is well known in the country of origin but is generally unknown here. Such actors might include David Kelly ("Greenfingers", "Waking Ned"), Robert Carlisle ("The Full Monty") and Pete Postlethwaite ("Brassed Off"). Ofttimes, the success of the film leads to a wider selection of film roles for the actor(s) involved and greater name recognition on American shores.
"Greenfingers" differs from these in the respect that the cast is headed by two important international names. First, the hard-edged Clive Owen who here demonstrates what we might never have guessed from "Croupier" and his splendid BBC series, "Second Sight"... that he has a light comedic side. And, secondly, but second place to none, the versatile and always excellent, Helen Mirren ("The Long Good Friday", "Losing Chase" and the 4-season "Prime Suspect").
Clive Owen's usual steeliness is reflected distantly in the character he plays, Colin Briggs, who is barely out of prison for murdering his brother. Shortly after we meet him in the introductory sequence, he smashes a gardening store window in order to retrieve a bouquet of yellow roses, leave them on the doorstep of girlfriend Primrose Woodhouse, and give himself up to the arms of the law with the wry comment, "what took you so long?"
He has thus returned himself to Edgefield, a minimum-security and very progressive prison in England's Cotswalds region from whence he was recently released. Yes, under the influence of his prison cellmate, the frail but vigorous Fergus Wilks (David Kelly), Briggs has led a gardening detail of thugs and murderers into the joys of gardening and himself into what seemed a pretty complete rehabilitation. What causes him to return to prison is the need to resume his leadership role in order for the prison gardeners to adequately compete in the competition at the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show. Improbable as this appears to be, it's based on an ongoing reality in English gardening circles.
In large part, the prison gardeners are making their mark in society through their discovery and subsequent publicity by the virtual queen of gardening on the British isle, no less than the Julia Child of gardening, Georgina Woodhouse (Mirren, in a highly spirited and lovely looking role). She is so followed on the telly by all the gardeners of England (and the would-bes) that her support of such a group has virtually ensured their public notice.
And, though this grande dame of horticulture has completely embraced the prisoners' achievements, even trusting them to perform as a crew in her contract work, she is taken aback when her own daughter, whom she has named Primrose, declares her intention to marry Colin, an ex-con. As progressive as Georgina is in using and supporting these men in their gardening ventures, she needs to examine her conscience when it comes to forming so personal a relationship with one, even if he happens to be the most talented and attractive of the lot.
Yes, this little drama revolves around the success of a prison gardening contingent rising to the challenge of national competition. In it, deeper issues are involved, including the cancer death of a member of the group, the challenges of mutual trust, prison recidivism and problems of reentrance into society of a convict... including falling in love with an angelic civilian. But, not to worry, it's all quite light and lovely and, if you enjoyed "Billie Elliott" or any of the films mentioned above, you're very likely to go away all smiling and warm.
It leaves you with so good a feeling, in fact, that I wouldn't dream of spoiling the stroll through the garden by pointing out the weeds. Yes, there are story flaws, inconsistencies, preachiness, oversentimentality, and other weaknesses, including some lack of conviction with the flowers, but detailed analysis doesn't seem to fit the well-intentioned enterprise.
Mirren's flair in the Woodhouse role is spot-on, while the usually unapproachable Clive Owen is appropriately accessible. The story was inspired by Paula Deitz's 1998 NY Times article, "Free to Grow Bluebells in England", and was written and directed by Joel Hershman.