Judging by her recent comments about Welsh people, nasty quiz lady Anne Robinson should steer clear of Sara Sugarman's latest. Anyone who saw Sugarman's debut feature, the abominable Mad Cows, might be tempted to steer clear as well. But while desperately uneven in tone and full of Dylan Thomas-style clichés, Very Annie Mary is infinitely superior to that bovine London-based caper.
For starters, it has Rachel Griffiths showing a flair for physical comedy as gawky misfit Annie Mary that rivals her already proven talent for accents. The Australian actress is no stranger to British dialects (Jude, Blow Dry), and she effortlessly adopts a Welsh lilt here.
But it's what she does, not what she says, that makes her portrayal so convincing. One delicious sight gag has her character donning a helium-inflated rubber suit to ape Pavarotti in a spoof of the Three Tenors. Watching Griffiths bobbing along like Mr Blobby before floating above the crowd like a human zeppelin makes up for the stereotyping of the other Welsh characters, most of whom look as if they've stumbled in from an amateur revival of Under Milk Wood.
Though confined to a wheelchair for much of the action, Jonathan Pryce provides sterling support as Annie Mary's tyrant of a father, introduced singing Nessun Dorma in a Pavarotti mask while out delivering loaves. But Ioan Gruffudd and Matthew Rhys resort to easy camp as gay shopkeepers Hob and Nob, while the shift into pathos in the final act jars with the cartoonish excesses that precede it.
Sugarman started out making short films in the Welsh village where Very Annie Mary was shot, and she has a penchant for whimsy that can be wearing. For the most part, though, this is a delightfully eccentric fable.
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Better than Mad Cows (though that's not saying much), Very Annie Mary boasts a stellar performance from Griffiths to help it overcome any structural weaknesses and Welsh stereotypes. An engaging character comedy in the Ealing mould.