- The Washington Times - Friday, August 3, 2001

"Greenfingers" is a nice little movie whose niceness and littleness seem cautious to a fault.
Writer-director Joel Hershman, an American inspired by a 1998 feature story in the New York Times, has contrived a fable about the salubrious effects of gardening on a group of inmates at a minimum-security prison in the Cotswold Hills of south-central England. Indeed, the men prove such quick studies that they become finalists in the annual Hampton Court Palace Flower Show. This enables the movie to take scenic advantage of the authentic exhibition.
The cons cultivating green thumbs include Clive Owen of "Croupier" renown as a relatively young convicted murderer named Colin Briggs, who was jailed in his teens for a crime of passion and is nearing possible parole. David Kelly of "Waking Ned Devine" renown plays an elderly lifer named Fergus Wilks who suffers from terminal cancer but appears chipper and benevolent in the face of mortality. The Edgefield prison gardeners acquire a patron in Helen Mirren as best-selling author Georgina Woodhouse, England's reigning authority on matters horticultural.
Georgina owns a handsome estate near Edgefield, and her connections give the prisoners a lot of ground in which to practice their planting and do experimentation ambitious enough to make Hampton Court take notice. The Georgina connection also introduces Colin to a potential sweetheart, Georgina's daughter Primrose (Natasha Little). Although we may dislike her name, Primrose projects a gentleness and delicacy that would justify changes of heart in men even more taciturn and solitary than Colin.
The problem with the movie is that Mr. Hershman seems to trifle along the surface of the possibilities suggested by his premise and set of characters. The obstacles to a successful gardening team are never quite credible, especially with a warden as progressive as Warren Clarke's Governor Hodge. The first pack of seeds is a gift from Fergus to Colin, proffered in hopes of breaking down the resistance in his sullen new roomie. The seeds blossom miraculously after Colin hurls them on seemingly unreceptive ground.
The plot would have benefited if Colin and Fergus had shared good will and recollections a little sooner. One feels grateful for mere shreds of family and criminal history. Mr. Hershman also needs a better excuse for getting Colin back in Edgefield after he has been paroled and Primrose is in his corner. The resentments meant to smolder in the hero really are overshadowed by the sunnier influences, notably Mr. Kelly and Miss Little and the gardening culture.
"Greenfingers" needs to embrace character interplay and the lore of the garden with far more industry and variety than it does. The film tries to get by with a minimum of each, perhaps uncertain of how patient a movie audience would be in the company of hard guys given a decent excuse to go straight and maybe a little soft.
Perhaps a method that accentuated the incongruous would have helped. Mr. Hershman can't sustain a system of illusion in which the men can be sincerely mistaken for cons and their new gardening skills can be mistaken for hard-earned achievement. The movie barely prepares enough ground for performances to take root, shortchanging its name players.
A genuinely inspired script might have reveled in the sequence of events that encouraged several unlikely guys to became passionate about growing and showcasing flowers. "Greenfingers" hopes to dote on such a love match but never formulates it with adequate concentration or insight.


**
TITLE: "Greenfingers"
RATING: R (Occasional profanity and sexual candor)
CREDITS: Written and directed by Joel Hershman. Suggested by the newspaper story "Free to Grow Bluebells in England," by Paula Deitz. Cinematography by John Daly; production design by Tim Hutchinson; costume design by Frances Tempest; music by Guy Dagul.
RUNNING TIME: 91 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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