By most accounts, the best reason to catch this lively, comic quasi-musical set in Wales is its star, Rachel Griffiths, the chameleonic Australian actress who has become known for a range of roles as generally offbeat types ever since her feature debut in Muriel’s Wedding (1994). Here she’s the title character in Welsh-born actor-writer-director Sara Sugarman’s quirky love letter to her native country and its national penchant for song.
Annie Mary is a 33-year-old stuck with caring for her ill-tempered, puritanical and disagreeably loony father (Jonathan Pryce), a baker who delivers his goods in a van blasting Pavarotti from loudspeakers mounted on its roof. Her tragedy is that the traumatizing death of her mother, when the girl was still in her teens, scuttled her chance to study voice in Milan after winning a scholarship in the famed Eisteddfod music festival, judged by Pavarotti himself. But for all the disappointment and mistreatment she receives, she is no dreary heroine but a clumsy, impetuous “spitfire with a bad case of arrested development,” in the words of a 2001 Film Comment article by Nicole Armour. Annie has subordinated her musical gifts to her father’s determination to sing loudly and not too pleasingly in public at every opportunity. But when he is struck mute by a stroke, she at last begins to come into her own again.
If it all sounds very earnest and familiar, take heart that it’s balanced with barbed humor, kooky antics and idiosyncratic characters ranging from a gay couple named Hob and Nob to a terminally ill teen whose last wish is to go to Disneyland, a goal Annie tries to finance by coaching a pop group in a singing competition.
Although Griffiths is not a child of Wales, her winning way with the character and her ability to take on a remarkable range of accents are a good fit for the role, and Sugarman surrounds her with a large cast of Welsh actors, starting with Pryce, who got to flaunt his vocal chops earlier in Evita (1996). Ioan Gruffudd (Fantastic Four, 2005) and Matthew Rhys (TVs The Americans, 2013-2018) had early-career roles as the gay duo, and the cast also features Ruth Jones (Gavin & Stacey and Little Britain for British television) and Llyr Ifans (Under Milk Wood, 2015) in small roles.
Very Annie Mary was shot in 1999 in the Garw Valley in Bridgend, Wales, posing as the fictional village of Ogw. The cinematography, lovingly capturing the countryside’s green hills, is by Barry Ackroyd, a BAFTA winner and Academy Award nominee for The Hurt Locker (2008).
Reviews were mixed, with several critics noting the film’s inconsistency of tone and tendency to be little more than a series of comic vignettes. Nevertheless, it won a Sundance Film Festival NHK International Cinema Award in 1999. That accolade did little to help the picture find a distributor, and it wasn’t released in the UK until 2001 and in the US the following year, albeit in limited run. In 2002, Griffiths and the screenplay won awards at the US Comedy Arts Festival.
The wildly eclectic soundtrack is a standout element of the film, ranging from Puccini arias to Welsh folk tunes to pop hits like “YMCA,” “What’s Love Got to Do with It” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Director: Sara Sugarman
Producers: Graham Broadbent, Damian Jones
Screenplay: Sara Sugarman
Cinematography: Barry Ackroyd
Editing: Robin Sales
Art Direction: Tim Ellis
Original Music: Stephen Warbeck
Cast: Rachel Griffiths (Annie Mary Pugh), Jonathan Pryce (Jack Pugh), Ioan Gruffud (Hob), Matthew Rhys (Nob), Kenneth Griffith (Minister)
by Rob Nixon