'Garnet's Gold': Edinburgh Review

Courtesy of Edinburgh International Film Festival
Widescreen wilderness vistas and an engaging protagonist counterbalance an excess of poignant whimsy.

Ed Perkins' documentary on an English oddball's adventures north of the border competed for the Documentary Prize at the Scottish Festival.

Sometimes all a documentary needs is one strong, charismatic personality to keep things watchable: Garnet's Gold boasts two in the form of the middle-aged eponymous protagonist and his feisty octogenarian mother. Tracing the madcap quest by the former to find long-lost treasure in the Scottish highlands, this visually striking foray into a very British form of eccentricity has already proved a crowd-pleaser at both Tribeca and Edinburgh, and should profit from current global interest in all things Tartan-flavored around the upcoming independence referendum. Part-funded by the BBC's Storyville strand and thus guaranteed tube play, it feels a little cramped at just 76 minutes, and director-cinematographer Ed Perkins' 2.35:1 widescreen images cry out for theatrical exposure.

A heartfelt if occasionally overly emphatic paean to the human spirit, Garnet's Gold is dominated by the flinty presence of London-based dreamer Garnet Frost, a weather-beaten 58 at the time of filming. Intelligent, articulate and with decades of colorful experience evident from his every gesture and utterance, Garnet has for 20 years been obsessed with finding a cache of gold that apparently went missing in the remote wilds of Scotland in the middle of the 18th century. Sensing that his vigor is fading, Garnet determines to head north for one last attempt to locate coinage, which he reckons could today be worth in excess of £1 billion (around $1,714,450,000). Funding for this pipe-dream comes -- via a somewhat stagey sequence -- from his 89-year-old mother, a scene-stealing idiosyncratic, artistically inclined lady who may be ailing in body but whose indomitable spirit and lively intelligence remain sparklingly sharp.

Domestic scenes between Garnet and the bed-ridden Mrs. Frost casually achieve a tender poignancy which first-time director Perkins, a carefully self-effacing presence behind the camera elsewhere strives somewhat strenuously to replicate: his deployment of J. Ralph's bittersweet, strings-heavy score constitutes a classic example of lily-gilding. And when Garnet and pals depart for Scotland around the halfway mark, the picture settles into a steady monotone of inspirational awe, both at the splendors of the landscape (undeniable) and Garnet's Quixotic determination to give his life meaning and purpose.

It's no spoiler to reveal that Garnet doesn't become a billionaire as a result of his travails. Indeed, Perkins allots relatively little screentime to the actual gold hunt itself, in a film that could easily justify an additional twenty or thirty minutes (although the daft, Harry Houdini-inspired coda could profitably be omitted). Of course, the point isn't so much the actual finding of the treasure-trove as much the fact that Garnet was able to actually put his harebrained scheme into practice. His quietly steely determination recalls the heroes of Werner Herzog's fictions and documentaries -- the legendarily adventurous director himself having trodden similarly muddy, watery terrain in Zak Penn's fanciful Incident at Loch Ness (2004). Garnet's Gold isn't anywhere near as amusing or as much fun as that larkish predecessor, of course, its mood of windswept philosophical rumination ultimately aiming -- not always successfully -- at much loftier metaphysical altitudes.

Production companies: Red Box, BBC Storyville
Director / Screenwriter / Cinematographer: Ed Perkins
Producer: Simon Chinn
Executive producers: Daniel Battsek, Nick Fraser, Kate Townsend, Victoria Steventon, Christina Ljungberg
Editor: Paul Carlin
Composer: J. Ralph
Sales: Submarine Entertainment, New York

No Rating, 76 minutes