Hello and welcome to part two of the Hugh Grantathon. This instalment will start in 1988 and end in 1990, and visit such exotic locations as Lake Geneva, Louisiana, the south of France and Glasgow. We’ve just moved out of the Colonial Years (although our first movie was actually released before The Bengali Night for those who are counting) and have moved into the, um, Doing An Accent Years. These were dark times for Hugh Grant.
Rowing With The Wind
The peculiar thing about trying to source not especially popular movies because an actor who would later become moderately famous had a bit part in them is that you tend to have to get them from slightly out-of-the-way places, or at least out-of-the-way relative to where I am. Not out-of-the-way if you live Spain, which is where I got my copy of Romando Al Viento. Perhaps more peculiarly not only did I have to source this film from Spain, but it appears to have been a legitimately Spanish film, by a Spanish film company, with a Spanish writer, director and cinematographer, released originally at a Spanish film festival. Except for some reason it was written in English and had an entirely English cast, which they seem to have dubbed into Spanish for the Spanish audience. Fortunately for me, the English language dialogue is still on the DVD.
Anyway, in this film Hugh Grant plays Byron. He is weirdly perfect as Byron, despite the fact he looks nothing like Byron. I think it might be the hair. In all of Hugh Grant’s early movies, he has really 80s hair which is fine in this context because Byron also had really 80s hair. I mean, yes, if we’re being technical probably it would be more correct to say that people in the 80s had hair influenced by a number of styles and movements, one of which was the New Romantics which was clearly inspired by the, well, Old Romantics so I suppose really the 80s had Byron hair.
This film is odd. It has the problem that most historical biopics have, which is that peoples’ lives don’t really fit neatly into pleasing narratives with instigating events, rising action, denouements and resolution. It loosely focuses on that bit that everybody knows happened but nobody knows any details about where Byron, the Shelleys and Polidori hung out by a lake somewhere and had a ghost story competition, which led to Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein, John Polidori writing The Vampire, and Byron and Shelley … I don’t know? Flaking out? Or producing something since lost to history but which I like to think was about zombies. Y’know, she walks in beauty like the night of the living dead. The Necessity of Atheism (And Eating Brains). That kind of thing.
The central conceit of the movie is basically that a bunch of bad shit happened to the Romantics (because it did) and Mary Shelley becomes convinced that it’s her fault because, in writing Frankenstein, she—in a very real sense—unleashed a monster that would doom them all. I mean, I say in “in a very real sense”. I really mean “in a totally metaphorical sense”, although the monster does pop up to be symbolic about every eighteen minutes. Although I watched this film primarily for Hugh Grant as Byron, its focus is mainly on the Shelleys, particularly on Mary Shelley, which I liked because she tends to get left out stories about that set, despite being in many way the coolest of them. And because of the need to crowbar real history into something approaching an emotionally satisfying narrative arc, it spends a really, really long time showing us images of Shelley getting wet, thinking about water, going near water, and constantly reminding us that he can’t swim, but that this will definitely be totes okay. Because, y’know, what are the odds of him drowning off the coast of Italy any time soon, eh?
I actually think I quite enjoyed Romando Al Viento, despite in retrospect having very little sense about what it was about. I thought it was a bit unfair of them to accuse Polidori of murdering Byron’s dog (in fact, it died of rabies, during which condition Byron nursed it personally, because of course he did) but I thought it did an admirable job of creating the sense of the world as seen and inhabited by the Romantics. By which I mean, as seen and inhabited by a bunch of self-obsessed, self-destructive 19th century dilettantes. And that’s, y’know, cool.
Goodness of film: Like a 4? I think it might actually be a good film. Like it’s very what it is and I can’t decide how I could imagine a film that’s just sort of generally about the Romantics, and particularly about Mary Shelley and her emotional reaction to a bunch of things that happened in her life being any better. Also, and maybe The Bengali Night just lowered my expectations here by being shit in every conceivable way, but it looks beautiful for something filmed in 1988. It’s all continental vistas and frilly shirts in the rain. Also trivia point: this is the film on which Hugh Grant and Liz Hurley met. They would famously be a couple until 2000. And she would famously wear a dress held together with gold safety pins that became so notorious it actually has its own Wikipedia page.
Hugh Grantiness of film: Tricky one. Hugh Grant isn’t the main focus and although he is, in many ways, weirdly well cast as Byron it’s not the Hugh Grantiest of roles. I mean, he’s hardly flustered at all, although he does have massive hair to compensate. Weirdly, his 1988 turn as a careless, debauched and jaded Byron sort of anticipates the way he would re-invent himself in the late 2000s as a careless, debauched and jaded Hugh Grant. So because of that I’m giving it a 3.
The Lady and the Highwayman
Because of the difficulties I had sourcing Rowing With The Wind this was actually the first film I watched after The Bengali Night and, as such, I suspect it benefited disproportionately from the context. I mean, I’m pretty sure this was a bad film but but due to its lack of overt colonialism, and the fact Hugh Grant was actually in it quite a lot, I was basically thrilled.
Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God. How amazing is this?
This is a Hugh Grant film based on a Barbara Cartland novel called Cupid Rides Pillion. In case, you can’t guess from the title of the movie, he plays either a lady or a highwayman and, spoiler, it’s the highwayman. The film opens with him saving the life of the future Charles II (Michael York, by the way, being fabulous) through a daring hat-swapping operation. And it kind of doesn’t let up from there. Within about the first twenty minutes:
Hugh’s become a highwayman
the Restoration’s happened
Hugh has nevertheless decided to go on being a highwayman because, as he later explain to the heroine, the king still has, um, need of highwaymen to deal with his enemies because a lot of the aristocracy have remained loyal to Cromwell, y’know like they were on account of how popular Cromwell was with ruling classes
he’s rescued the heroine from being molested in a carriage after her forced married to a pervy tax-collector
who he instantly kills in a duel that has every single cliched movie duel spot you could possibly want packed into about 85 seconds
like seriously, if I ever have to fight someone I’ll say I accept, but only if you stand with your back to a pile of logs tied loosely together with rope so that I can cut through them and they can go rolling all over the place. Also someone has to go through a campfire and we need something to leap over
ps, by the way, Hugh and the heroine are totally cousins. Like they have the same surname and everything.
pps their surname is Vyne and her first name is Panthea, because that is what women were called in those days
And it just goes on from there. Panthea, yes Panthea, yes that’s definitely a real name, shut up stop looking at me like that, gets her family fortune and honour restored because the tax collector she was forcibly married to was carrying it round in his moneybags the whole time because that’s how property works. And so then she’s presented at court, where Charles II is instantly all up on her and Barbara Castlemaine is sups jelez and all like imma totes gonna bring you down now. Then basically everyone gets framed for basically everything, there’s really quite a long sequence where both of them are in jail and looking sad, and Barbara Castlemaine (who is also fabulous) shows up in Hugh’s cell and is all I’ll totally get you out of here but you totally have to bang me, and he’s all like hell no Barbara Castlemaine because even though you’re clearly much cooler than the heroine and also she’s my fucking cousin I’m going to remain true to Panthea and, yes, that is her real name, why are you looking at me like that?
Anyway, good triumphs over evil because the evil effete cousin who wants to steal the Vyne family inheritance (there is always an evil effete cousin who wants to steal the family inheritance) takes Hugh’s special symbolic king ring that he was given by Charles II in the opening scene and then wears it front of Charles II and then Charles II is all like hey brah where’d you get that special symbolic king ring that I gave my closest and most trusted ally when we swapped hats back in the day and the evil effete cousin is all like I dunno, just like found it I guess, definitely didn’t steal it from my cousin who I’m trying to have murdered, and then King Charles like whaaaaat and everyone’s like whaaaat and then Hugh Grant totally gets pardoned for being a highwayman and is allowed to marry his cousin so yay. And then King Charles is like hey brah what happened to that hat I lent you and that is the actual end of the movie.
Goodness of film: 5. Shut up, fuck off, I don’t care.
Hugh Grantiness of film: 5. I know it’s not quite the archetype he usually plays because he’s meant to be dashing and shit (where ‘and shit’ in this context means ‘and other things similar to that’) rather than bumbling and shit (where ‘and shit’ in this context means ‘not very good at things’). But, having said that, if you had to pick someone to play a highwayman who continues to be a highwayman after his stated reason for being a highwayman had ceased to apply and who marries his own cousin at the end of the film and whose major achievement is swapping hats with Charles II Hugh Grant is the man you’d get to play that role.
This one defaults to having subtitles in Danish, so either I got it from Denmark or something very peculiar is happening. Champagne Charlie doesn’t show up on the Wikipedia filmography for Hugh Grant because it was a TV movie and, as a general rule, I’m excluding TV movies because otherwise I will never be able to stop watching things with Hugh Grant in them. But I didn’t realise that until I’d bought it.
This film (or TV movie) is actually in two parts, each of which is about 90 minutes long, making it really quite a lot of Hugh Grant for your money. It’s a sweeping epic about the champagne industry, the American Civil War and facial hair. You might remember how upset I was that Hugh has a moustache in Maurice. In this film he has a moustache and does a French accent and, halfway through the second chapter, grows a beard as well. Not happy. Seriously not happy.
Anyway, I feel quite ambivalent about Champagne Charlie. On one level, it’s an enjoyable piece of bunk that has a really 80s TV vibe to it (each chapter opens with a montage of the best bits in that chapter, with a cheesy voice over going ‘Tonight on Champagne Charlie’, and by the best bits, of course, I mean any bits where somebody rides a horse, punches somebody or gets their boobs out). On another level, it’s a made for TV 80s movie set against the backdrop of the American Civil War and, well, American Civil War. I should probably emphasise that I am in no way qualified to talk about the legacy of the slave trade or Civil War on American culture or American society. But I will say that I know a lot of people quite rightly take the whole thing very seriously and I should probably point out right away that quite a large of chunk of Champagne Charlie is a lighthearted romp in which Hugh Grant falls in love with a feisty Southern belle who runs guns for the Confederacy. And, well, that’s going to be not okay for a lot of people.
The first chapter takes place almost entirely in France, and Hugh Grant does not have a moustache in it (the less said about his French accent the better). I think, being set primarily in Europe, allows the difficult Civil War stuff to be at least dealable-with (and, again, I should stress that tolerance varies and it’s completely fine if your tolerance varies) since it’s mostly about Hugh Grant dealing with his evil uncle who’s taken over his winery. And while he’s having a whirlwind romance with a woman who is quite explicitly pro-slavery it’s still very much a story set in France in which one character happens to have some objectionable views. I could have done without the scene where Hugh Grant is all so that slave labour you guys use, what’s up with that and she’s all oh no, it’s fine, my slaves are like my family, we totally care about them. But because it’s just her you can reasonably interpret that as her worldview, rather than the narrative itself minimising the impact of the slave trade.
Things get a little bit tricky in the second half, firstly because Hugh Grant grows a moustache, but also because he actually goes to America and the Civil War actually starts. And, again, I’m not in a position to judge this stuff and I do think the film makes some effort to highlight that slavery is bad and that people who defend it are, at best, misguided and, at worst, malicious. But at the same time because the film is based on a real historical incident in which a champagne salesman was mistakenly arrested for being a Confederate spy Hugh has a lot of hostile run-ins with the Union. And the film has a very strong undercurrent of oh no the beautiful white houses, and good gentile southerners versus bad thuggish Yankees. And, to be fair again, there’s a scene towards the end where the worst cast Abraham Lincoln ever (seriously, I’ve seen people cross playing on the internet doing a better Lincoln) dresses down the Evil Yankee General for being too evil, but it all has this uncomfortable “both sides” feel to it.
And (I appreciate I’m saying this a lot) while it’s not my place to talk about this stuff I do think portraying this kind of very historically emotive conflict is really difficult. Ideally you don’t want to demonise either side because even though slavery was bad if you portray the Civil War as being the Good North versus the Evil South you wind up with a one-sided narrative that creates resentment among people who feel unfairly represented. On the other hand, if you present it as being all about the Evil North versus the Good South that’s, well, problematic for some fairly obvious reasons. What I think Champagne Charlie tries to do is to be more nuanced but it does that by essentially saying (and I apologise for the fact you basically can’t talk about talking about the Civil War this way without it inviting comparisons with really contemporary American politics) that there were good and bad people on both sides. And while that sounds nuanced it’s actually only one step less simplistic than making one side the goodies and one side the baddies. I think when you have a historical conflict in which there was a deep-seated ideological difference between the sides of that conflict and one side of that deep-seated ideological difference was more out-of-step with modern values than the other side, then you have to portray the people on the more out-of-step side as being complicit in an unjust system irrespective of their other good or bad qualities. And similarly you need to acknowledge that the people on the less out-of-step side would have had their own complex motivations independent of their circumstantial alignment against a historical injustice.
Basically I think the problem with the way Champagne Charlie portrays the Civil War is that it presents the North as mostly evil but with some non-evil people, which isn’t great. And it presents the South as mostly good, with a small and unrepresentative minority of the evil sort of slave owners that give the rest a bad name. When we actually see the heroine’s planation, her slaves seem genuinely happy and to enjoy working to her, and this seems to be borne out by the fact that when Hugh Grant finally persuades her that slavery is a bad thing and she frees them all they stay working for her and fight to defend her from the Union. And, yes, this is complex, and, yes, it’s a difficult situation (after all, I’m sure that kind of thing did occasionally happen, although if it did I suspect it might have had more to do with a freed slave not having anywhere to go than their genuine desire to work on a plantation for no money) but it seems to suggest that the problem with slavery wasn’t the institution itself so much as that some people were bad slave owners. Which is, well, uncomfortable-making.
The thing is, and I should stress that I’m saying this very much from a position of privilege, I did actually quite enjoy Champagne Charlie. It’s mostly about the personal journey of Hugh Grant’s facial hair as he tries to make it in the champagne business, despite the machinations of his wicked uncle and scheming business partners, and only a very, very little bit about the Civil War. I even quite liked the feisty Confederate love interest. Again, the apologia for slavery wasn’t great, but she had enormous 80s hair and, on a more serious note, a remarkable amount of her own shit going on for a female character in an 80s movie. Often in a love story one of the characters’ life choices will intervene in a way that breaks apart the romance but it’s usually either his career or her need for an appropriate marriage. And it was really interesting to see a love story where what keeps them apart is that they both have quite specific, and in some ways quite similar, commitments to something they perceive as a family legacy and that those commitments required them to live on different continents. And I liked that in the end both of them decided that the thing they were fighting for (his family vineyards in Hugh Grant’s case and, um, her family’s right to carry on owning people in hers) was more important than the fact that they were in love with each other. And I appreciated that this choice wasn’t presented as devaluing or undermining their love.
I mean, I’d have liked it more if there’d had been less slavery. Obviously.
Goodness of film: Just because of the Civil War thing this is super super subjective, especially in the current political climate. I would give this a 4 if you are happy with a film where the heroine is basically ideologically committed to fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War and which presents this as ultimately misguided but fundamentally noble. If you are not okay with that, and I can completely see why a lot of people would not be, then it’s a 1.
Hugh Grantiness of film: Oh man. Like he’s actually proper Hugh Grant levels of incompetent in this. He falls in love with a woman who he fails to notice is a smuggler, he doesn’t realise that basically everyone in his entire life is ripping him off, he fails to bang a really hot vineyard worker, and spends the latter half of Chapter 2 dying and growing a terrible beard in a Yankee prison. Also he sometimes remembers to do a French accent, and I’m not sure if that’s worse or better than the times he doesn’t remember. I think this has to be a 3.
The Big Man (UK) / Crossing The Line (US)
Okay. You know how sometimes if a relatively small film gets released and there’s an actor in that film who gets significantly more famous later on than the film ever gets, then when they do a DVD release of the film, they big up the role of that actor even if he’s only in, like, five scenes? That’s Hugh Grant in this film.
The Big Man (or Crossing The Line) is a Liam Neeson movie about the impact of the 1984 miner’s strike on small-towns in Scotland using Glaswegian organised crime and bareknuckle boxing as a metaphor for the plight of the working class. Hugh Grant is in three scenes in which he plays a man named Gordon, who might be a doctor, and who the protagonist’s wife briefly becomes attached to when the protagonist gets drawn into the aforesaid world of bareknuckle boxing and Glaswegian organised crime.
This is actually quite a good film, in that very slow, everything is shit, everyone is using you, you cannot get out from under the man, but it’s okay because your community will more or less survive and, anyway, what other choice of have you got kind of a way. I have no idea how this film will play for an American audience. There was actually quite a big subgenre of movies about industrial decline in the Regions (which is what we call the bits of England that aren’t London and the South East). It kind of hit its peak around Brassed Off, Billie Elliott and The Full Monty and tended towards bittersweet dramedies in which laid-off industrial workers (often but not always miners) deal with disempowerment and masculine identity in a world that no longer needs them by doing something a little bit quirky, like stripping or being in a brass band. The genre had tiny, tiny micro-revival recently with Pride which was about that and LGBTQ+ rights and the AIDs epidemic. There’s also a fairly rich vein of just super grimdark movies about poor people who lose everything and that’s it. And The Big Man / Crossing The Line sort of falls in the middle.
Basically Liam Neeson is a former pit worker who has had a spell in prison for assaulting a police office during a strike and is now coping with the fact that his community has changed unrecognisably, he relies on his wife to support him, and that, despite what stereotypes may persist about the working class, there is actually a stigma attached to having been in prison no matter how unjust the sentence. Anyway, his shitty mate, played by Billy Connolly, sets him up in a prize fight which brings him an immediate cash windfall but makes his wife walk out on him because it’s clearly dodgy as fuck. The vast majority of the middle of the film is just a very slow examination of him adjusting to his circumstances. And when you finally get to the actual fight you have these extremely mixed feelings because you obviously want Liam Neeson to win while also being aware that the fight is pointless, that his opponent is just as desperate as he is, and that basically everybody involved except for the two arseholes in suits is being exploited. This makes it quite an interesting counterpoint to the more uplifting narratives you get in films like Brassed Off and The Full Monty where people escape the restrictions of their social context. Whereas the fight in The Big Man / Crossing The Line just reaffirms it. There’s a slightly heavy-handed quote near the end where Liam Neeson’s character says “when we were kids, we used to race snails through puddles, and the one who lost got his snail stepped on” which sort of encapsulates everything the film is saying.
Anyway, Hugh Grant does not have a moustache in this film. But he does do a Scottish accent, which I think is at least more consistent than his French accent, possibly because he’s not on screen as much.
Goodness of film: 4, and I’m aware I’m going for 4s a lot here. Basically I actually think this is a good film in a very 90s movie about an 80s mine dispute way. It’s chronically unfun but everyone in it is good in it and this quite a resonant topic for those of us who are British and were alive in the late 20th century.
Hugh Grantiness of film: 2. He has multiple scenes in which he has dialogue and he delivers that dialogue adequately. But, again, this is one of those peculiar films in which he is called upon to play a character instead of playing some mannerisms under a haircut.