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CULTIVATING CONVICTS

MOVIE Review

Greenfingers *** (Out of four)

Rated:R

A group of convicts undergoes a Miracle-Gro-like transformation when assigned to tend a prison garden.Rough language and one sex scene.

Opening Friday in the Amherst Theater

In 1998, a New York Times article titled "Free to Grow Bluebells in England" told of a successful gardening program in a progressive British prison. The spade-wielding inmates, whose offenses included fraud and assault, displayed such flair in the penitentiary flower beds that they won top honors at the country's most vaunted horticultural competition.

Considering it fertile ground for cinematic treatment, American director Joel Hershman planted the story with invented characters, settings and romance. The result is "Greenfingers," a corny but charming comedy that premieres locally Friday, during one of the year's more arid movie-release weekends.

As this was to be the week that TV networks debuted their fall lineup, movie studio executives hadn't scheduled any major openings of their own. They figured the masses would be tuning in to the newest reality show, or the reaction to Rachel's big news on "Friends." As it is, those television programs were postponed in the wake of last week's terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Consequently, come Friday, a small art-house picture sprouts up virtually uncontested. It couldn't surface at a better time. "Greenfingers" is about felons who follow the primrose path to redemption. Its theme is summed up by the prisoner who observes, "Sometimes, it takes very little to make things right." In these trying times, who doesn't crave such escapist fluff? Leave it to an inspirational gardening movie to provide it in spades.

"Greenfingers" is also the newest entry in what shall henceforth be known as the "sensitive bloke" genre. The conceit of this category is that real men - make that real macho men - not only eat quiche, but they appreciate ballet ("Billy Eliot") and know how to play "Danny Boy" on the trombone ("Brassed Off.")

While engaged in pursuits typically associated with women, these blue-collar British guys unearth their gentle nature. Remember the unemployed lugs who learned to strip in "The Full Monty"? Murderers planting marigolds is the next variation on the theme.

The greenest thumb in the lot is Colin Briggs (Clive Owen), a frosty convict who, at the movie's opening, has earned a transfer from a conventional prison to Edgefield, a minimum-security citadel with no barbed wire, bars or even walls.

When Colin is asked which work assignment he prefers, he tells the warden that it doesn't matter. With his criminal record, he doubts anyone would hire him after he's sprung from the big house. Why should he bother learning a trade? But Colin's unlikely mentor, a blind lifer named Fergus (David Kelly) believes he's destined for greater things than plunging toilets.

On Christmas Eve, Fergus hands him a packet of seeds. Colin plants the scented double violets, which manage to sprout despite the inhospitable limestone soil. When the warden catches a whiff of Colin's success, he urges him to lead a crew of inmates in cultivating a prison garden.

Amid the daisies, Colin undergoes an instantaneous, and implausible, transformation. Before you can say, "bloom where you are planted," he discovers not only his work ethic, but his passion and his heart. With a newfound purpose, Colin opens himself emotionally, allows himself to trust others and - surprise, surprise - falls in love.

Owen, who received such favorable notice in "Croupier," has wedged himself into a narrowly comic role in "Greenfingers," but he manages to do remarkable things within its confines.

His deep-set eyes convey the range of his enlightenment, from the steely stare that dares anyone to challenge him at the movie's beginning, to the melting vulnerability they reveal as he explains his crime to Fergus.

As garden guru Georgina Woodhouse, Helen Mirren dresses in floral prints from hat to pump and delivers her lines with a thin-lipped reserve that's just right for a character who can be sweet and stinging in the same breath.

Georgina, it turns out, may have more than philanthropic motives for teaching the prisoners how deep to plant tulip bulbs. As her daughter points out, she has been unlucky in love because she has yet to find a man who is "good in the dirt." Will Georgina find a suitor among her students?

Another surprise: Despite their rap sheets, these guys are real sweeties. Their closest brush with recidivism happens when they nearly come to blows over daffodils. And that's one way of emphasizing just how far from the newspaper facts "Greenfingers" strays. A note at the beginning of the film indicates that its events are "inspired by" - not "based on" - actual events, an important distinction.

Yet for all the dramatic license Hershman took with the New York Times account, it's not nearly as much schmaltz as he oozed over the script. The heavy-handed metaphors include a scene in which Colin germinates seeds in a greenhouse while a fellow inmate impregnates a pretty prison worker in the garden. The soundtrack even features Tears for Fears' blast from the past, "Sowing the Seeds of Love."

Two weeks ago, such touches might have been hard to stomach. But these days, "Greenfingers'" contrivances provide a welcome distraction from the world, a mindless getaway from the worst kind of reality TV. Now, that's what you call flower power.

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