New Zealand writer-director Niki Caro delivers her least impressive vintage with this drearily literal-minded adaptation of “The Vintner’s Luck,” Elizabeth Knox’s novel about a 19th-century French peasant who receives celestial guidance in matters of love and winemaking. It’s one of those ambitious grand-summation works — rooted in the bittersweet truism that life, like wine, grows richer with age — but not even Caro’s earthy, sensuous filmmaking can overcome the tale’s glib supernatural conceit, overstated moral lessons and overall dramatic torpor. “Luck” will need just that to fend off frosty critical response, suggesting a limited B.O. harvest.
Condensing more than two decades into just over two hours of screen time, Caro and co-writer Joan Scheckel trace the rise of Burgundy bumpkin Sobran Jodeau (Jeremie Renier) from lowly grape-grower to seasoned winemaker. That trajectory is set in motion one night in 1808, when Sobran has his first moonlit encounter with an honest-to-God angel, Xas (a fey Gaspard Ulliel).
Passionate and defiant, Sobran longs to marry dark beauty Celeste (Keisha Castle-Hughes), despite rumors of madness in her family. He also wants to be placed in charge of the chateau winery owned by his employer, the Comte de Vully (Patrice Valota), and realize his dream of making a truly exceptional wine. The angel encourages Sobran along this path, and they agree to meet that same night every year, so Xas can taste his wines and offer further counsel.
Sobran marries Celeste, and they start a family; meanwhile, the Comte’s chilly niece, the Baroness Aurora de Valday (Vera Farmiga), arrives at the chateau, where she and Sobran form a mutually instructive friendship. But as the years pass and Sobran experiences setbacks, he lashes out at Xas, who articulates the story’s principal theme: Every wine is a distillation of its maker’s life experience, and a great wine must consist of equal parts joy and sorrow.
Thus, when the Comte dies and Aurora makes Sobran chief winemaker, his euphoria produces a very good year indeed. And when Xas imprudently confesses the true nature of his role as a heavenly guardian, Sobran feels betrayed and reaps only grapes of wrath. Meanwhile, his confused (and confusing) attractions to both Xas and Aurora promise to rejuvenate his life even as they threaten to wreck his marriage to the increasingly unhinged Celeste.
Life, death, love, lust, pain, perseverance and renewal — Sobran learns about them all the hard way, and so, too, must the audience. Crucially, given that it’s one man’s life story, the film never adequately conveys a sense of time passing, and so Sobran’s epiphanies register mainly as items on a very long checklist.
In contrast to her moving work in “Whale Rider” and “North Country,” Caro never finds the emotional pulse of the story here. There’s no tragic dimension to Sobran’s misguided decision to trust an angel, probably because from the start, this magical-realist device feels so unmagical — a clumsy theatrical conceit in dire need of a Tony Kushner rewrite. There’s something questionable, too, about having French-fluent actors such as Renier and Ulliel speak vaguely Frenchified English, especially opposite two actresses whose accents are similarly unplaceable.
Renier (“L’Enfant,” “Summer Hours”) has the tough task of eliciting sympathy for his whiny winemaker and only partly succeeds. Castle-Hughes (“Whale Rider”) seems so tangential here that she isn’t even granted the dignity of proper old-age makeup; at one point, her Celeste looks younger than her own daughter. Deliberately stiff at first, Farmiga ultimately bristles with determination and passion in the pic’s strongest performance.
Caro is more successful at capturing the lush physicality of the winemaking process, aided by Denis Lenoir’s lyrical widescreen cinematography, Grant Major’s aces production design and Antonio Pinto’s effective if overused score. But taste is one of the harder senses to capture onscreen, and “The Vintner’s Luck” wears out its welcome as characters repeatedly sip wine and ask, “What do you taste?” (Regrettably, the answer at one point is, “I taste you.”)
Period trappings are deftly handled by set decorator Regine Constant and costume designer Beatrix Aruna Pasztor. Pic was lensed mainly in Burgundy, with some New Zealand-shot footage seamlessly woven in.