It’s an incontrovertible fact that good books rarely make good movies. But a movie adaptation shouldn’t make the source material look bad. Niki Caro’s The Vintner’s Luck seems to think that by simply mixing a critically regarded novel with a beautiful setting, it will strike cinematic gold. The film, instead, 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. A New Zealand Film Commission product, The Vintner’s Luck is further proof of the national funding body’s unambitious, mediocre approach to national cinema, and is deeply disappointing given what it could (or should) have been.
It’s hard not to compare Caro’s adaptation with the source material. Excising the book of some of its narrative strands, the film centres on Sobran (Jeremie Renier), a down-on-his-luck peasant who meets an angel Xas (Gaspard Ulliel). He eventually makes it as a renowned vintner, winning the favour of a Baronness (Vera Farmiga). He also 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. Moreover, the script makes that crucial mistake frequently struck when adapting novels: being caught in-between retaining enough of the novel to justify invoking its name, and endeavoring to tell a compelling story in a much shorter timeframe.
Most egregiously, Caro’s film overlooks the homosexual narrative—a major source of the novel’s passion, and a key component in its spiritual concerns. Caro has argued that “the film can appeal to a wider audience” (is its target audience Saudi Arabia?), yet dumping the novel’s central relationship has made Xas virtually redundant, and withheld considerable emotion from the narrative. Xas’s 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 from his connection with Sobran. 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. (Is it really that difficult to show a passionate kiss between two men in 2009? Incidentally, the film throws in some gratuitous female nudity, including a particularly senseless river-bathing scene.)
The Vintner’s Luck also fails technically. The jerky handheld camerawork adds little to the feel of the film, as if the shot construction is trapped within a Dardenne Brothers close-up extravaganza, unwilling to challenge the audience by being too formally adventurous. Many scenes are also cut too sharply—almost clinically—as if they are servicing the muddled plot, rather than allowing for any development and contemplation. Lacking any sense of pace or climax (which could be read as meaning it was dull), the characters are barely allowed time to build rapport with each other in between moving the narrative along. The end result resembles a rough draft.
This lack of space for the actors has also resulted in some indifferent performances. Castle-Hughes in particular is woefully miscast. She doesn’t especially look early 19th Century French for a start, and her ‘cosmopolitan’ accent detracts from the few awkward lines she’s scripted. The narrative wastes her character—it was hard to get a sense of where she fit in at all, especially as the darker elements of her personality in the book are removed in favour of pouting at the camera. The production also seems to dispense with ageing make-up for her—but not Sobran—leading to a farcical situation where her daughter appears older than she is by the film’s end. 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 squandered. The worst thing, however, about The Vintner’s Luck is just how it lifeless and calculated it really is. Labouring the point that a wine should reveal the character of its maker, it’s unclear whether we should be make the same judgment about the filmmakers of this dreary movie.