The adjective in the title of Sara Sugerman’s sophomore feature should really be changed from “Very” to “Too.” The aim of the picture is apparently to recapture the pleasant eccentricity of the great Ealing comedies of the forties and fifties, but the result is so flamboyantly quirky that it amounts to overkill. “Very Annie-Mary” wants to be a lovably kooky Ugly Duckling fable about a long-suppressed young Welsh woman who literally finds her own voice and frees herself from the control of her condescending father, but the tone is so exaggerated and broad that it comes off as annoying rather than charming.
The talented Rachel Griffiths plays the title character, the fumbling, nervous spinster daughter of a widowed baker (Jonathan Pryce) who fancies himself a great tenor and evinces an obsession with grand opera (particularly Verdi and Puccini). Annie-Mary had, it seems, once won a singing competition herself, but after the death of her mother she gave up music, becoming the mousy, homely servant of her strict dad. The story relates how, in the aftermath of her father’s stroke, she strikes out again on her own, though with mixed results. The necessary complications include a bedridden friend for whom the town is engaged in a fundraising effort despite its endemic poverty, a vacant house which becomes for our heroine a symbol of liberty, a group of local ladies who form a distinctly untalented musical group, a provincial talent contest, a big horse race and a hard-hearted neighborhood matron interested in a new husband. Can it be any surprise that after much incident and an obligatory turn of fortune, the heroine becomes her own person and liberates herself from the shackles of paternal oppression? The fact that this denouement is entirely predictable goes without saying, but what makes it especially hard to take is that in order to effect it, Sugarman has to cobble together a thoroughly implausible twist, involving a character who turns out to be far wealthier than seems likely and chooses to use her fortune in a totally inexplicable way. The last fifteen minutes of the picture are frankly a gabble of peculiar occurrences, none of them in the least convincing even in the context of farce and fantasy. The Ealing comedies ended by confounding expectations, too, but they always had a wild logic to them; “Annie-Mary” doesn’t.
One might expect that Griffiths could enliven the picture despite its flaws, but she overplays throughout (though in different ways as the mood shifts), and never achieves the degree of charm the title character is clearly meant to possess. Grim and unlikable, Pryce certainly creates a foil for the heroine’s dreams, but never really engages our interest. The rest of the cast is basically window-dressing, designed to reflect local color or overstated oddity, but some suffer more than others from Sugarman’s heavy-handedness. It’s sad, for example, to watch the handsome Ioan Gruffudd (Hornblower in the A&E series of films on that character) flail about as one half of a gay couple that run the town’s sweet shop, and even more unpleasant to see the aged Kenneth Griffith struggle with the role of the town minister, a fluttery fellow who’s portrayed, quite unpleasantly, as being both puritanical and largely unsympathetic to his suffering flock; he has to play one scene with his trousers slipping down, and another fretting over a “Scratch-and-Sniff Bible”–a truly lame joke. If you care to see Griffith do a similar part far more elegantly and effectively, just check out his turn in “The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain” (1995).
The only reason one might embrace “Very Annie-Mary” is for its feminist ideology. Certainly it has remarkably little to offer in the way of entertainment.