A lightweight but breezily effective adaptation of a classic Brit-in-Spain travel memoir, vet comedy director Fernando Colomo’s “South From Granada” is always enjoyable. However, its consistent lack of seriousness means that little of the rich detail or compassion of Gerald Brenan’s original book makes it to the screen. Good-looking pic features a high-profile cast (Angela Molina, Antonio Resines) and is shot through with flashes of humor and sly reflections on culture shock. But dramatic problems with the air-headed central character limit dramatic impact. Film’s first weekend in mid-January was solid but not spectacular; offshore, “South” looks likeliest to hang its hat at fests.
Around 1920, the young, upper-class Brenan (newcomer Matthew Goode) staggers, exhausted, into a mountain village in southern Spain, having left England to live and to write abroad. He brings with him only a rucksack and some faulty Spanish — though his collection of 2,000 books follows him soon on muleback. After buying a house and hiring a servant, Maria (Consuelo Trujillo), Brenan quickly becomes an integral part of the town’s society.
Before long, Brenan is eyeing the charms of Juliana (Veronica Sanchez) as she bathes in a pool. At the same time, Maria, recognizing Brenan is not short of cash, tries to foist her daughter, Angeles (Bebe Rebolledo), on him.
A visit from Brenan’s g.f., Dora Carrington (Jessica Kate Mayer), along with Lytton Strachey (James Fleet) and Ralph Partridge (Laurence Fox), reveals the English as uptight and arrogant compared with the passionate, vibrant locals — a stereotype the script never really challenges. Ralph has asked Dora to marry him and she’s accepted, so Brenan stays on alone after they leave.
Brenan takes on Juliana as his maid and soon learns, with the help of new friend Paco (Guillermo Toledo), that getting rural Spanish virgins into bed is a hazardous pursuit. Meanwhile, his landlady, Dona Clara (Maria Alfonsa Rosso), tells him that if he marries Angeles — the illegitimate child of Clara’s late husband and Maria — she’ll make him the heir to her property.
Typically of Colomo, pic remains determinedly upbeat, and script is good on the petty intrigues and affairs of village life. Resines as Don Virgilio, a priest pining for the love of Dona Felicidad (Angela Molina), and Toledo as the bubbly Paco all stand out.
However, Goode is unable to bring much to the over-passive central character, apart from making Brenan a bumbling innocent abroad. In contrast with pic’s epigraph, which praises Brenan’s understanding of Spain, the writer’s own musings in his letters show him to have been ignorant of his adopted country. Brenan’s biographer, Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy, helped with the script, but has done his subject a disservice here.
Given Colomo’s lengthy track record with comedies, the picture is as skillfully put together as can be expected. Opening and closing music are appealingly poignant, though workaday elsewhere. Lenser Jose Luis Alcaine does wonders with the extremes of light and shade which characterize the region. Dialogue see-saws between Spanish and English, with Brenan often talking something in between.