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
Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tv review
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The best TV shows and films coming to the service

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

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.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn