Talent isn’t really so rare among movie stars, but judgment certainly is.
Having demonstrated the former in “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” Hugh Grant has gone on to show a lot of the latter by choosing to appear in an understated little comedy with a very big title, “The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain.”
Grant plays the title role, one of a pair of English map makers who travel the British countryside on a mission during the first World War. What they are up to is technical and routine.
Or rather, it is until they get to the little Welsh village of Ffynnon Garw.
The town’s inhabitants are phenomenally proud of the local mountain, which they consider to be the “first” in Wales. That is, it’s the first mountain that invaders historically have encountered, the mountain that defeated those enemies, the mountain that has, in a sense, helped Wales to remain Welsh.
Naturally, the villagers are upset when their landmark is found to be not quite high enough officially to merit mountain status. So they decide to build it up - a bucket of dirt at a time - while scheming to hold the cartographers in town long enough for a proper remeasuring.
Much of the film’s quirky humor comes from the discrepancy between the insignificance of the issue at hand and the vast importance that the villagers attach to it. Preferring wry humor to belly laughs, Welsh writerdirector Christopher Monger tells a modest shaggy dog story that he has said is based on a family legend.
If “The Englishman” is too offbeat to become a giant hit, Grant is still shrewd to appear in it. His role allows him to develop the most entertaining aspects of his emerging movie persona.
As in “Four Weddings,” the actor is very funny in a rather passive way. Playing Reginald, the unassuming young cartographer, he tends to stammer and smile nervously while everyone else tries to influence him about one thing or another.
Grant’s scenes with Ian McNiece, who plays George, Reginald’s senior partner in surveying, are especially hilarious, partly because of the physical contrast between the two men.
At first glance, the slender Reginald and the portly George look like Holmes and Watson, although it’s George who wears the deerstalker cap. And where Reginald is affable almost to a fault, George turns out to be determined - and even somewhat stern - when it comes to professional matters.
Much of what’s fun about this film are the eccentric people of the town, including the one who goes after Reginald, a winsome young woman played with a saucy flair by Tara Fitzgerald (“Hear My Song”).
Among the villagers, the main mountain boosters are old Rev. Jones and Morgan the innkeeper - men whose mutual loathing is exceeded only by their pride in their town.
As the elderly clergyman, Kenneth Griffith is loaded with fire and brimstone, almost all of it aimed directly at Morgan, who takes great delight in tweaking the reverend’s pretensions. Colm Meaney (“The Snapper,” “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”), meanwhile, plays Morgan with a great zest for life and a wonderful wiliness.
Filmmaker Monger (“Just Like a Woman,” “Waiting for the Light”) is no whiz when it comes to moving the camera around. But the gingerbread homes of the Welsh countryside are so lovely - wet or dry - that their charm comes through anyway.
The director also captures the charm of his cast - especially Grant. The English actor goes into this movie a star and comes out an even brighter one.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain” Location: Newport Highway Cinemas Credits: Directed by Christopher Monger and starring Hugh Grant, Ian McNiece and Tara Fitzgerald. Running time: 97 minutes Rating: PG