The reunion of Whale Rider director Niki Caro and star Keisha Castle-Hughes along with the lovely French wine country backdrop are the audience-friendly assets of Caro's latest movie, the sprawling period drama The Vintner's Luck. A New Zealand-France co-production with additional funds from Belgium and Japan, Vintner's Luck is as plush as costume dramas come, with a soaring score, stunning landscape photography and beautiful period clothes. Sadly, in Caro's hands, the magical realism of Elizabeth Knox's titular book turns laughably melodramatic. The film stars Jérémie Renier (Summer Hours) as Sobran, an aspiring winemaker in 19th-century France; Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air) is his noblewoman employer the Countess de Valday; and Gaspard Ulliel (Hannibal Rising) is Xas, a male angel who becomes Sobran's trusted advisor. Farmiga may claim the brightest marquee wattage but Belgium actor Renier and his French cohort Ulliel give Vintner's Luck its much-appreciated sex appeal. Unfortunately, Renier and Ulliel also fall victim to the film's unbelievable love triangle. Despite its authentic 19th-century style, Vintner's Luck is a period epic too over-the-top to be believed.
Sobran Jodeau (Renier) is a peasant who works his father's small hillside of grape vines for the local wine merchant, but he dreams of becoming his own winemaker. His life changes on a midsummer's night in 1808 when Sobran meets Xas (Ulliel), a male angel who offers him guidance on marriage and most importantly winemaking. Xas encourages Sobran to taste the dirt before deciding where to plant his vines, a secret for growing exceptional grapes. The mysterious angel also persuades Sobran to marry his sweetheart Celeste (Keisha Castle-Hughes), a woman with a history of insanity in her family. Over time, Sobran becomes a successful winemaker and his relationship deepens with the Countess de Valday (Farmiga)-in the middle of it all is the mysterious Xas.
Vintner's Luck's period setting, use of magical realism and culinary plot line earns comparisons to more successful specialty fare Like Water for Chocolate and Babette's Feast. While Caro deserves admiration for attempting an ambitious, challenging epic, she fails to capture the wonderment in Knox's novel. Perhaps, what seems magical on the page-an angel wrapping his expansive white wings around his male lover-can only appear ludicrous onscreen. Audiences who seek out costume dramas will find Vintner's Luck a lovely addition to the genre but they soon will grow frustrated with the film's high-strung storytelling.
Caro, who co-wrote the script with her Whale Rider writer Joan Scheckel, remains a filmmaker to admire despite Vinter's Luck's dramatic failings. Her technical skills are sharp and she proves herself capable of handling a large-scale production. Cameraman Denis Lenoir (Olivier Assayas' Demonlover) makes beautiful use of the film's locations in Auckland, France and Belgium. Brazilian composer Antonio Pinto complements the images with a sensuous score. Production designer Grant Major and costume designer Beatrix Aruna Pasztor boost the fantasy by beautifully recreating the film's 19th-century setting.
The pairing of Caro with her Whale Rider star Castle-Hughes may attract the most attention, but the film's best performance belongs to Renier as the conflicted Sobran. Renier, who honed his dramatic skills with the Dardennes brothers, provides a solid anchor to the film as a man who makes a dangerous pact in order to achieve success. Renier's scenes with Ulliel's mysterious angel are pivotal to the film but the over-the-top storytelling stands in their way.
Distributor: Panorama Entertainment
Cast: Jérémie Renier, Gaspard Ulliel, Vera Farmiga, Keisha Castle-Hughes
Director: Niki Caro
Screenwriter: Niki Caro, Joan Scheckel
Producers: Ludi Boeken, Niki Caro, Pascal Judelewicz, Robin Laing, Laurie Parker
Genre: Period Drama
Running time: 126 min.
Release Date: May 6 ltd.