First, There Was a Mountain
In The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill, But Came Down a Mountain, the titular Englishman is Hugh Grant, and Grant makes of his role another genial, non-threatening romantic leading-man turn. But the movie is more than just a vehicle for Grant's low-key charms. He may be the bankable star, remembered from Four Weddings and a Funeral or Sirens, who'll get folks into the theater, but it's the film itself that will send them away happy. The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill, But Came Down a Mountain is a low-key charmer all on its own. Writer/director Christopher Monger has taken what he swears is a legend told to him by his Welsh grandfather and made a winning, comic folktale for the screen. The delightful, eccentric population of the Welsh villageof Ffynnon Garw are an engaging group, and their bizarre story is told at a refreshingly understated pace.
The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill, But Came Down a Mountain is one Reginald Anson (Grant), a surveyor who, with his older and boozier fellow, George Garrad (Ian McNeice), is sent to Ffynnon Garw to get hard details on the region's topography. The time is 1917, World War I is raging across the English Channel, and accurate maps, like everything else imaginable, are required for the war effort. The prideful town folk greet their visitors with enthusiasm, and the pub is soon taking book on exactly how high the local mountain is. Ah, but there's a problem. The efficient English engineers spend a busy day on the high-lands and come down with a measurement that's not up to snuff. To the precise British, a mountain must rise at least 1,000 feet; the local "mountain" is instead only 984. The result is that on His Majesty's maps, the local pride will be listed as only a hill. The Brits are all very sure of their instruments and their measurements and have proper-sounding apologies, and none of this cuts any ice with the people of Ffynnon Garw. As far as they're concerned, their nearby treasure is a mountain, and nobody, especially no outsider, will tell them any different.
Thus the rural Welsh set about hatching a plot to change the mind of the British government. War may be tearing up the Continent, but what matters to the people of Ffynnon Garw, at least those who are still living and able, is adding 20 feet of mud to their "mountain" so it can be listed as such. The odds against them are almost insurmountable: the village has a serious shortage of manpower, the young men having died on the front and in the mines (working overtime for the war effort), and the English surveyors are determined to leave immediately, without remeasuring what they are sure is a hill. Still, the Welsh, for no reason beyond daffy civic pride, will not be swayed from their task.
Hugh Grant is as usual -- smokey blue eyes, stuttering and shy smiles -- and this plays perfectly in contrast to Ian McNeice. McNeice is one of those "Oh that guy" character actors. He doesn't have much name recognition, but moviegoers are always glad to see his lumpen, expressive face. In The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill ..., his George Garrad swills gin, has hangovers and is driven half-mad by the villagers' tricks. Garrad, swaying, warns Anson that Wales is "a foreign clime," a dangerous place for Englishmen.
Garrad may have a point. The most prominent Welshman around is Morgan the Goat (played by Colm Meaney), a red-headed pub owner, and he and his countrymen seem to have no respect at all for the English and their mission. Morgan is the mastermind of the plot of Ffynnon Garw. It's Morgan who calls down Betty of Cardiff (Tara FitzGerald), and cons the beauty into convincing Anson to stick around. It is Morgan, too, who keeps the gin flowing so that Garrad is unlikely to rise before afternoon. Even before it falls to him to oversee the addition to the mountain, Morgan has been busy. Being one of the few young men around the village -- left behind when the others marched off to war -- Morgan has had to fill in and do the work of many. As a consequence, the village has a hardy crop of children who share Morgan's ginger-haired appearance. (The exact nature of this natural consequence of having one healthy adult male in a town full of healthy but worried and war-widowed women is never spelled out. Very little is. The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill ... is subtle, in the interest of both comedy and a PG rating.)
Meaney, a star of The Snapper and a memorable presence in The Road to Wellville, though undoubtedly best known for his role as Chief Miles O'Brien in Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, is wonderful as the town scamp. His jolly, wily Morgan is a Bart Simpson of the Celts. Watching Morgan's stunts and scheming and uneasy alliance with Reverend Jones (Kenneth Griffith) is pure, giddy fun.
For his part, Meaney reports that being part of the project was pure, giddy fun. Stopping in Houston a short while back to pimp the film, the Irishman spoke with his own accent rather than the Welsh one he learned for the film, saying actory stuff about Englishman being a "very funny comedy" and how not many scripts of this caliber come along and what a treat it was to work with fine old English actors. No surprises there. But then he said, "I don't like the term, and I don't like to use it, but I think this has to be called a feel-good movie."
Meaney's disdain for the term is understandable. We associate the label "feel-good" with tripe that has a happy ending tacked on, not with well-made movies with a rich cast of complex characters. Look at it this way: The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill, But Came Down a Mountain is a triumph of the human spirit story and, despite the respectful, intelligent storytelling, it is a feel-good movie -- an upper-echelon feel-good movie like Bill Forsyth's Local Hero or Gregory's Girl; with the darling black humor of early '50s English Ealing studio comedies such as The Man in the White Suit or The Lavender Hill Mob.
The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill, But Came Down a Mountain has a sterling cast let loose in a loopy story about people keeping their spirit. It explores the lengths that people will go to, both for the common good and for their own peculiar reasons. And before this folktale becomes too cloyingly sweet, it throws in a twist on the happy ending. So, feel-good movie? Yes. Carefully pretty period piece? That too. But, more important, this film supplies a satisfyingly odd and complex story -- and real comedy.
The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill, But Came Down a Mountain.
Directed by Christopher Monger. With Hugh Grant, Tara FitzGerald and Colm Meaney.
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