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
Adam Matthews, Terry Townshend
Adam Matthews is Secretary-General of GLOBE International in London, and Terry Townshend is Head of Policy at GLOBE International in Beijing. GLOBE supports legislators through national chapters to develop and advance laws on sustainable development.
Thursday 03 August 1995
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.
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