Well, it definitely isn't Scotland

THE ENGLISHMAN WHO WENT UP A HILL BUT CAME DOWN A MOUNTAIN Chris Monger (PG); Hugh Grant's latest is supposedly about a Welsh village, but the hills are alive with the sound of English. Adam Mars-Jones wonders why film- makers have such a problem with the place

Poor little Wales! How she is short-changed by geography! The Irish have an island to themselves, however they contest it. The Scots have the monopoly on a cardinal compass, so that everything north of a certain line is Scotland. But in Wales, national identity has to work a little harder to define itself. Wales is neither far north nor far south, but something in the middle.

Try again. It's the bit with mountains or, at least, the bit with mountains that isn't Scotland. This is the conviction held by the villagers in Chris Monger's film The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain. When a pair of visiting surveyors at the time of the First World War establish that their beloved Ffynnongarw is only 984ft tall, and therefore a hill, the villagers react with an identity crisis and a plan.

First there is lamentation, with people saying that if you take away their defining mountain you might as well call them English and be done with it. Then there is rhetoric with Morgan the Goat, the local philanderer and baby fatherer (Colm Meaney), pointing out that you don't call a short man a boy or a small dog a cat. Finally there is action, with everyone turning out to build an extension top of the hill, a turf toupee to bring it up to the minimum height for mountains.

The Englishman... is the most self-consciously endearing film about national identity since Passport to Pimlico - the Ealing comedy in which Margaret Rutherford and chums found that they were legally Burgundians. Monger's script is methodically winning, and his camera celebrates the humble poetry of stone and brick and corrugated iron, of valley and hill.

But Welshness is not so straightforward a thing, as various parts of the film reluctantly testify. Stephen Endelman's music for the opening credit, for instance, tries to sound Welsh without quite knowing what Welsh music would sound like. (When Vaughan Williams or Parry write a big tune, their music is mysteriously perceived as English.) Endelman throws in some pipes, and the result sounds more Irish than anything else. Later he comes up with some all-purpose pastoral which can, when necessary, be beefed up into a march.

Welsh national character in The Englishman... is both mocked and defended, with various unflattering cliches rebutted without actually being mentioned. Yes, we're liars, the film seems to be saying at one point, but very bad ones and all in a good cause. The good cause is keeping the surveyors (Hugh Grant, Ian McNeice) stranded until Ffynnongarw is in a fit state to be measured again. When Morgan the Goat tries to rally support for the plan, he applies a distinctively negative pressure, saying to each person in turn: "Do you want me to have to tell people it all failed because of you?" In this manipulation of guilt and grievance, Morgan shows himself not so very different from his arch enemy, the Reverend Jones (Kenneth Griffith).

In all the to-ing and fro-ing about hill versus mountain, one issue of indisputably mountain size never arises: language. Welsh national identity is bound up with the speaking of Welsh in a way that other Celts can't come near. Yet in The Englishman..., after a single sentence of Cymric, everyone speaks English - and not just when there are English people around. Near the end, someone is told off with the phrase: "Don't act so English," and the audience is not supposed to notice that the rebuke is in English.

This is national identity served up on a plate. Nothing that might make an audience feel excluded has been allowed to intrude. But is it necessary to neutralise cultural identity in order to sell it? It is, after all, possible to make a film in Welsh, and to have it praised and understood overseas. Subtitles are a hindrance in England and America, but not in countries where there would need to be subtitles anyway, and where a different flavour - absence of white flannels even in period films, and so forth - may be an advantage.

It's ironic that despite what it wants its theme to be, The Englishman..., by rejecting the Welsh language, aligns itself with the mainstream of British (in effect, English) film-making. There isn't a lot of conflict in the script, but what does exist is massaged smoothly away by the end. The young soldier who has come back from the Front in mental tatters must confront his fears - the terrifying similarity, in night and rain, of the earthworks on Ffynnongarw to the trenches of Flanders - as if shell- shock were a form of low self-esteem. The preacher and the sexual sinner are reconciled, and the unique function of religion in this society, the preference for a fierce God who speaks Welsh over a mild one who doesn't, is glossed over.

Kenneth Griffith, though, gives a strong performance as the Reverend Jones. This actor, with his almost belligerent emotionalism, is never far from ham and sometimes seems actively to represent a sort of Welshness that people dislike, a quality of wheedling fierceness. But in The Englishman... his routine excesses work very well; when from the pulpit he refers to "Our loved ones", then, jerking his head to the side, "WHO WILL NOT RETURN," the substitution of a strangled shout for the expected whisper is actually rather moving.

Griffith's twitchings and tremblings balance Hugh Grant's trademark hesitations and apologies. This isn't a role that extends Grant's range, as his recent part in An Awfully Big Adventure did, but he's comfortable with it, and with his charm. In theory, his character, too, has suffered shellshock in the War, but it seems to be a suaver officer-class version of that condition.

Chris Monger's film is itself perhaps, like Ffynnongarw, a few feet short of its desired stature, needing a little more urgency, and certainly a less perfunctory love-theme. But The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain is certainly a charming piece of work, a film that fits in tidily with our pseuding national cinema.

n On release from Friday

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions