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Dirty Work

Only committed horticulturists and compulsive readers of The New York Times obituaries (this writer falls into the latter category) likely noticed the recent passing of Rosemary Verey, an aristocratic Englishwoman whose sophisticated but egalitarian approach to gardening took some of the stuffiness out of what previously had been a rather forbidding leisure activity. Although she had nothing whatsoever to do with the film, the spirit of Verey seems to hover over Greenfingers, the charming new film about a group of hardened British prison inmates whose lives are transformed by their exposure to gardening. (Greenfingers translates as green thumb in America.) Somewhat incongruously -- given that the story takes place in Britain, stars a completely British cast, and nicely captures that peculiar brand of English eccentricity -- the film was written and directed by an American, Joel Hershman, whose only previous credit was the little-seen Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me.

The film's characters are fictional, but Greenfingers was inspired by a true story, detailed in a 1998 New York Times article about real-life British convicts who discovered that rehabilitation can take root in the most unlikely soil (in this case, limestone). In a country where tending garden is practically a national obsession, the inmates proved so adept with rake and hoe that they began entering and winning some of the most prestigious competitions in the world.

The film stars Clive Owen, so memorable in Croupier, as Colin Briggs, a sullen, antisocial murderer who, nearing the end of his 15-year sentence, has been transferred to HMP (Her Majesty's Prison) Edgefield, a minimum-security prison in the Cotswolds, a typically picturesque spot in the Midlands. Colin rejects the friendly overtures of his elderly roommate, Fergus Wilks (David Kelly of Waking Ned Devine), as well as the enthusiastic exhortations of the liberal-minded prison warden, Governor Hodge (Warren Clarke).

Quite by accident Colin grows a small patch of blue violets and before long he, Fergus, and three other inmates are spending their days cultivating daffodils, honeysuckle, sweet William, and the like. (When the men initially express doubt, Fergus tells them, "We've been prisoners a long time. Let's be gardeners.") Edgefield's first-ever garden soon attracts the attention of the outside world, including Georgina Woodhouse (Helen Mirren), the grande dame of British horticulture, and her daughter, Primrose (Natasha Little).

Now then, either British prisons are blessed with sweeter, cuddlier burglars and murderers than the United States, or the filmmakers are taking a bit of poetic license. But so what? This is a feel-good movie; why beat around the bush about it? The English countryside is lovely; the film's score has a bouncy, appealing beat; and the humor is gentle and inoffensive. The performances are equally ingratiating.

Owen's character possesses a solitary nature not unlike the one he portrayed in Croupier. The origins of his reticence could not be more dissimilar, however, and the actor crafts a completely different persona here, showing us Colin's slow but gradual reawakening to life's possibilities. Mirren has a field day as the flamboyant and opinionated mistress of British horticulture who seems to place a higher priority on gardening than motherhood. The supporting players are an endearing lot (when was the last time a movie didn't have a villain?), with a special nod to Clarke as the kindhearted prison warden.

Some of the accents are a bit difficult to decipher, and the story's message is candy-coated, to say the least. But Greenfingers proves a lovely, sweet alternative for audiences fed up with the latest teenage horror flick.

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Jean Oppenheimer

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