Nothing in writer-director Christopher Monger's filmography provides a clue that he was capable of spinning a yarn as enchanting as The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain. Prior to this release, the high point of Monger's career was 1990's diffuse comedy Waiting for the Light, which starred Shirley MacLaine.
Based on a Welsh legend handed down to Monger by his grandfather, The Englishman tells the story of Reginald Anson and George Garrad, a pair of English mapmakers who come to a quiet little Welsh village to determine the elevation of a mountain known to the locals by the same unpronounceable (well, they can pronounce it) name as their town: Ffynnon Garw. The Englishmen see their duty as cut-and-dried: If the peak measures 1000 feet or taller, it goes into the maps as a mountain; 999 feet or shorter, and they declare it a hill and move on. But to the people of Ffynnon Garw, for whom the worst insult imaginable is to call someone English, the mountain represents far more than just another geographic landmark. It's a source of keen civic pride. As the film's narrator -- an elderly villager passing the story along to his grandson, just as Monger's grandfather did -- reveals, the lofty mound has become known as "the first mountain of Wales," a distinction residents of Ffynnon Garw have "boasted about from time immemorial."
The year is 1917. World War I rages on the continent. Most of Ffynnon Garw's able-bodied young men have been called to the frontlines in France. In the past, the town elders watched the English make off with Welsh iron, Welsh coal, and Welsh tax money. Now they have stood by helplessly while the British Army plundered the town's most precious resource -- its young men -- for cannon fodder. The prospect of losing their mountain to the English while their young men fight the Germans terrifies them.
Sure enough, Anson and Garrad calculate an altitude of merely 984 feet, too short to qualify for inclusion on the official government map. The town's initial devastation at the news gives way to resolve; from the hellfire-and-brimstone Reverend Jones to the womanizing Morgan the Goat (most of the townspeople go by last names that reflect their trade or personality -- Ivor the Grocer, Williams the Petroleum, Johnny Shellshocked), the residents of Ffynnon Garw conspire to delay the mapmakers' exit long enough to add another 20 feet of dirt to the cherished peak. Enter the seductive Betty of Cardiff....
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Like Bill Forsyth's Local Hero -- another whimsical gem set in the British Isles (Scotland in Hero's case) -- The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain hooks the viewer with a congenial mix of gentle wit and lyrical storytelling, to say nothing of a village full of lovable eccentrics. Both movies offer parables about small-town residents who, led by a libidinous innkeeper, win a battle of wits with a pair of interlopers. It takes a lot of duplicity to convince the outsiders to give themselves over to the simple life.
English poster boy Hugh Grant plays the title role of Reginald Anson, the Englishman who goes up the hill, every bit as winningly as he did the lovestruck bachelor protagonist of Four Weddings and a Funeral. Grant once again deploys the killer grin and effortless charm that helped make that picture one of last year's biggest box-office successes. As a bonus, in this film you can actually understand what he's saying. (I don't know about you, but there were times when the English accents in Four Weddings ran so thick I thought the flick merited subtitles.)
The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain reunites Grant with Sirens costar Tara Fitzgerald, who never quite gets a fix on the part of Betty. Not to worry. Colm Meaney as Morgan the Goat, Kenneth Griffith as his nemesis-turned-ally Reverend Jones, and Ian McNeice as Anson's irascible fellow mapmaker with an Achilles' heel (alcohol) all deliver pitch-perfect supporting performances. The unholy alliance between Griffith's sputtering, apoplectic cleric and Meaney's quick-thinking manipulator is a wicked treat from the first time they square off to their final meeting atop the hill. And while that pair plays the preacher-sinner angle for big laughs, Grant and McNeice work a variation on the old skinny guy-fat guy shtick, coming off like Abbott and Costello's slightly smarter British cousins.
Writer-director Monger grew up in a tiny Welsh village similar to Ffynnon Garw, so it should come as little surprise that his film looks and feels authentic. Monger displays a flair for subtle character-driven comedy. (A perplexed villager queries Anson about how he measures a mountain's altitude. Anson explains that he bases his calculations on the heights of surrounding plateaus whose elevations already have been established -- from still other promontories. "Who measured the first hill?" the curious villager wonders. "God, my son," declares Reverend Jones confidently.) And Monger would seem to have inherited the Welsh gift for storytelling A just when you think he's closed his fable with a safe, predictable ending, he comes up with a clever denouement that lends the story currency. His career until now may have amounted to a molehill, but Christopher Monger climbs to peak form on this Mountain.