Friday, December 07, 2007

The Spanish Gardener

You might have noticed that I title entries after the film I’m discussing. I do this purely for simplicity. It’s been tempting to use other titles – to play on words or quote an apposite bit of dialogue (tomorrow’s review of ‘Victim’ could easily go under the banner “Because I wanted him!”; when I get to ‘The Servant’, the immortal line “I’m a gentleman’s gentleman – and you’re no bloody gentleman” cries out to be used) – but in the case of ‘The Spanish Gardener’ there’s simply nothing else to call this article.

The film’s set in Spain. The nominal hero is a gardener. That’s it.

To put it mildly, ‘The Spanish Gardener’ is a nothing film. There are only two things worth mentioning, and I’ll leave those till last just so I can close on a remotely positive note. For now, let’s examine ‘The Spanish Gardener’ as an exercise in how to make a nothing film:

Employ a journeyman director. That ‘TSG’ is the film Philip Leacock is best remembered for says it all. His only other film of any note is the minor WWII melodrama ‘Appointment in London’, also starring Bogarde. After helming feature films during the 50s and early 60s, he worked exclusively in television up till the mid-80s, seeing out his career helming episodes of ‘Falcon Crest’ and ‘Murder, She Wrote’. Oh dear.

The screenplay, by John Bryan (his only writing credit as far as I know – his usual metier was as producer or production designer) and Lesley Storm, is a static affair which lurches into contrived melodrama in the last half an hour. The source material is a novel by A.J. Cronin. I’ve not read it, but having slogged through his most famous book ‘The Keys to the Kingdom’ a few years ago, I can attest that he’s not the paciest storyteller.

The cinematography, by long-time Powell & Pressburger collaborator Christopher Challis, is sumptuous but a bit too “picture postcard” – immaculate sun-drenched compositions, pretty but lifeless.

The plot involves a minor British diplomat, Harrington Brande (Michael Hordern), sent to an out-of-the-way posting in Spain after falling out with his boss (Bernard Lee) when passed over for promotion. Accompanied by his young son, whom he over-protects (his wife has left him), the boy escapes the stultification of his father’s company by striking up a friendship with local gardener Jose (Bogarde). Brande becomes increasingly jealous, forbidding the boy to talk to him. When the lad’s watch is stolen and planted on Jose, Brande seizes the opportunity to discredit him …

The scenes of Jose’s arrest – manacled, bungled on a train under armed guard – jar the viewer out of an hour’s worth of inertia. All this for a watch? The resolution, played out against a raging storm (whoop! whoop! cliché alert!), is as predictable as it is underwhelming.

So what are the two things worth mentioning? Well, it’s a rare example of Bogarde not turning in the best performance: he sleepwalks through a one-dimensional role that calls for him to do nothing more than look bronzed and handsome while he pushes a wheelbarrow around, leaving it to Michael Hordern to steal the film (his finely nuanced characterisation is far better than the script deserves). Also, the film reunites Bogarde with Jon Whiteley, his young co-star from ‘Hunted’. A cut above the usual standard of child actors, Whiteley made only two more appearances before devoting himself to academia. He went on to establish himself as eminent art historian at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.


PO said...

I disagree with you. The Spanish Gardener is a very good film! All actors are excellent! This is a film about jealousy and it effects. OK--so what--about a watch. It doesn't matter. Regardless of what was used to get to get the gardener in trouble with the law because of the motive--jealousy. I recommend this film. Very good one.

Neil Fulwood said...

Thanks for leaving your comment. Although I'm not keen on the film (maybe I'm comparing it too harshly to the high points of Bogarde's career such as 'The Servant' and 'Death in Venice') I hope I got across how good Hordern's performance is, likewise that of the young boy.

Myosotis said...

I was HUGELY disappointed in the film, having read it after the book. I agree, the performances were very good... but what is the point of the film?

The book is heartbreaking; perhaps not the greatest thing ever written - although I think it was VERY well written - but it is unforgettable, it is haunting (perhaps all the more so because I first read at age twelve :). And certainly it has a point.

The film is as contrived as any I have ever seen; and the ending, almost shockingly so.

I am a huge fan of Dirk Bogarde, especially of his wok in "Death in Venice", but this film I'd rather forget. I cannot imagine what he was thinking when he accepted this role.

Myosotis said...


Sorry, obviously I meant, "having SEEN it after I had read the book".