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All thumbs: Tale of inmate gardener 'Greenfingers' labors for feel-good effect

Friday, August 17, 2001

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A note at the beginning of "Greenfingers" states: "This story is inspired by actual events." Inspired, not based upon, actual events.


Rating: R for language and some sexuality.

Starring: Clive Owen, David Kelly, Helen Mirren

Director: Joel Hershman

Critic's Call:


Writer-director Joel Hershman took liberties with those events, which accounts for the insufferably precious tone and direction the movie sometimes takes. It's not often that the word "precious" appears in a review of a movie largely set at a prison and starring Clive Owen, to boot.

Owen, a darkly handsome British actor with sharp cheekbones, piercing eyes, attitude to spare and a frosty, detached air, burst out of the pack with "Croupier." In that film, he was a struggling writer who took a job as a dealer in a London casino. Here, he's Colin Briggs, a man who went to prison at age 18 and has spent the past 15 years there.

Shortly after the story opens, he is transferred to Her Majesty's Prison Edgefield, an open prison in the Cotswolds. There are no bars, barbed wire or guard dogs, and the prisoners are a mix of short-timers and lifers. Among the latter is Colin's eccentric and elderly roommate, Fergus Wilks (David Kelly, the twinkly star of "Waking Ned Devine"). He's always armed with a wee bit of advice, such as "Sometimes it takes very little to put things right." And then the movie proceeds to prove that so.

Colin keeps his physical and emotional distance, but a small Christmas present from Fergus unwittingly transforms him. The older man gives him a packet of seeds for scented double violets. Colin unceremoniously dumps them into the wintry soil, expecting nothing.

In the spring, the seeds sprout into beautiful blooms -- inspiring the prison governor (or warden) to order a gardening project, which reinforces Colin's unexpected "greenfingers" and provides the road to redemption. Along the way, he encounters Georgina Woodhouse (Helen Mirren), a famous gardening expert, author and TV celebrity, and her unassuming adult daughter Primrose (Natasha Little).

Without splendid actors such as Owen, Kelly and Mirren, "Greenfingers" might be unwatchable or descend into sugary sweetness. It tries very, very hard to be a "feel good" movie; the best feel-good movies, however, don't show the strain. The story includes only the briefest descriptions of the crimes that landed Colin and Fergus in prison; references are made to murder and robbery for the other lads, but few details are supplied. And except for a brief burst of fear and revulsion, none of the society swells seem the least bit bothered by the prisoners in their midst at a garden show.

"Greenfingers" was inspired by a New York Times article headlined "Free to Grow Bluebells in England" from July 1998. The bare bones of the story are the same, but a little something was lost -- or artificially enhanced -- in the translation. Hershman has a heavy hand with his movie Miracle-Gro.

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