Reviewed by Brannavan Gnanalingam

IT’S an incontrovertible fact that good books rarely make good movies. But a movie adaptation shouldn’t be making the source material look bad. Unfortunately The Vintner’s Luck, the movie, seems to think that by simply mixing a critically regarded book with a beautiful setting, it will strike cinematic gold. Instead, the film is a mess. It’s emotionally sterile, disjointed in its narrative, full of characters lacking in character, and scripted without any of Elizabeth Knox’s spiritual or thematic resonance. It’s also unconscionably timid. The film, a New Zealand Film Commission product, is further proof of the national funding body’s unambitious, mediocre approach to national cinema and is deeply disappointing because of what the film could (or should) have been.

It’s hard not to compare the narrative with the novel. Excising the book of some of its narrative strands, the film looks at Sobran (Jeremie Renier) a down-on-his-luck peasant who bumps into an angel Xas (Gaspard Ulliel). He eventually makes it as a renowned vintner, winning the favour of a Baronness (Vera Farmiga). However, he has a millstone of a moody, mentally unbalanced wife (Keisha Castle-Hughes). The dire script includes scenes which have little downstream relevance (e.g. the war scene, the madness scene), or little impact in building emotional connections to the characters. The script makes that crucial mistake frequently made when adapting novels: being caught in-between trying to retain enough of the novel to justify invoking its name, and trying to tell a compelling story in the much shorter timeframe allowed by a feature.

Most egregiously, Niki Caro’s film cuts out the homosexual narrative from the book, which was the major source of the novel’s passion, and a key element in its spiritual concerns. Caro has argued that “the film can appeal to a wider audience” (is the film’s target audience in Saudi Arabia?), but slicing off the novel’s key relationship has almost made Xas redundant, and withheld considerable emotion from the narrative. Xas’ pointlessness is underlined by the fact that he doesn’t appear to be named in the film, and the film doesn’t gain anything from having him there, while the lack of romance removes any charge in the connection between Sobran and Xas. And replacing the book’s earthy relationship with the kind of euphemisms and allusions reserved for zealous Production Code melodramas is at best cowardly in its appeasement of a perceived audience homophobia and could, at worst, be seen as homophobic itself. (Is it really that bad to show a passionate kiss between two men in 2009, or can we only see some bizarre acrobatic routine? Incidentally, the film throws in some gratuitous female nudity, including a particularly pointless and calculated river-bathing scene.)

The Vintner’s Luck also fails in its technical elements. The jerky handheld camerawork added little to the feel of the film, as if the shot construction was trapped a Dardennes Brothers close-up extravaganza, and not wanting to challenge its audience by being too formally adventurous. Many scenes were cut too sharply – almost clinically, as if they were servicing the muddled plot, rather than allowing for any developing of flavours with a bit of contemplation. The film lacked any sense of pace or climax as a result (which could be read as meaning it was dull), and the characters barely had time to build any rapport with each other in between moving the narrative along. The end result felt more like a rough draft of a film.

This lack of space for the actors has also resulted in some indifferent performances. Castle-Hughes in particular is woefully miscast. She doesn’t really look early 19th Century French for a start, and her, err, ‘cosmopolitan’ accent detracted from the few awkward lines she was given. The narrative wasted her too – it was hard to get a sense of where she fit in at all, especially as the dark elements of her character in the book are removed in favour of pouting at the camera. The production also seemed to dispense with age make-up for her (but not Sobran), leading to the farcical situation where her daughter appeared older than she did by the end of the film. The other actors struggle to convey the underlying story’s turbulent emotions or justify why we should care (the weird mix of accents jarring between the cast), and with the undeniable acting talent present, it’s a shame that it all feels so wasted. However, the worst thing about The Vintner’s Luck is how it lifeless and calculated it is. It labours the point that a wine should reveal the character of its maker. It’s unclear whether we should be making the same judgment about the filmmakers of this dreary film.