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‘SWEDE CAROLINE’ Movie Review: An amusing, albeit patchy fly-on-the-wall marrow drama

Every fall in England, the giant veggie grower community takes its produce to horticultural shows for a weigh-in or a measure-up. These shows provide an opportunity for growers to showcase the humongous vegetables they have painstakingly cultivated over many months. Giant pumpkins, cabbages, carrots, and more are hauled in on wheelbarrows or lifted with cranes to be displayed and judged against others in friendly competition. From what I’ve seen on TV, this community comes across as a cooperative and congenial bunch, sharing tips and celebrating each other’s horticultural achievements. However, co-directors Finn Bruce and Brook Driver’s new mockumentary film Swede Caroline paints a very different picture of this eccentric subculture, exploring the rivalries, obsessions, and quirky personalities that lurk beneath the topsoil.

At the center of this fly-on-the-wall film is Caroline (Jo Hartley), an ambitious young woman striving to make a name for herself in this niche agricultural sport. When Caroline’s prized marrow plants mysteriously vanish just before the annual championship in Shepton Mallet, it seems her dreams of veggie victory may be crushed. Yet Caroline has an ace up her sleeve – she works part-time for a pair of private detectives who she thinks might be able to help her track down the culprit behind the great marrow heist.

But it would seem that there is far more than meets the eye in this case which Caroline and her two trusty partners in thyme, Willy (Celyn Jones) and Paul (Richard Lumsden) are determined to clear up. 

Willy, played with wit and warmth by Celyn Jones, clearly harbours an unspoken affection for Jo, though she appears somewhat immune to his romantic yearning. By contrast, Richard Lumsden’s conspiracy theorist Paul fancies himself something of a super sleuth, constantly trying to upstage Jo’s private investigator friends with his own elaborate schemes. Frustratingly, while Paul does deliver some amusing flashes of brilliance, his inflated ego and cheesy antics often feel overtly derivative of David Brent’s snarky delivery in The Office. Accordingly, his allusions to having been there, done that and bought the T-shirt in his prime often feels too familiar, ergo less legitimately funny.

Hartley’s performance, on the other hand, stands out as a grounded, relatable portrayal in stark contrast to the over-the-top performances of her co-stars. As the hard-working, big-hearted protagonist just trying to make ends meet, Hartley brings a sense of nuance and depth to the role. Her mannerisms and line delivery feel natural, as if she’s portraying a real person rather than a comedy caricature. While the quirky, hyperbolic performances around her frequently veer into slapstick excess, Hartley remains sincere throughout. Her skilful balance of down-to-earth sincerity with moments of sharp wit is where the comedy works its best. 

Direction-wise, the film succeeds as a mockumentary but was hampered by the use of abrupt incidental musical cues to raise the tension at certain points. While the intent is understandable – to raise the stakes at key moments – the execution ends up being counterproductive, as it feels out of place in this faux-realistic setting. Honestly, I think it would have worked much better without the score, in the same way that most found footage films work best by resorting to subtler methods of heightening tension.

Some of the supporting characters/cameos were great but left me wanting more, particularly the private detectives played by Aisling Bea and Ray Fearon. Their shady activities and morally questionable methods made them far more fascinating than the main storyline about the missing plants and expanding their roles could have added a wonderfully weird subplot and double act to contrast the more straightforward marrow drama.

All in all, Swede Caroline has its moments, and is definitely something to be enjoyed, especially if you are a fan of similar style TV shows such as “Brassic,” “This Country” and the aforementioned “The Office.” But, despite sharing much of that same brand of comedy, writer Driver’s talent for belly laugh-inducing humor doesn’t quite translate as well as it did in his previous gem, Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break. As a result, the film is an amusing, albeit patchy, comedy that lacks the idiosyncratic wit and subversive edge needed to join the pantheon of the aforementioned classic cringe comedies that it clearly seeks to emulate.

VERDICT:

Swede Caroline releases in UK cinemas this April 19th, 2024.

Where to watch SWEDE CAROLINE
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