It takes a special magnetism to make a lack of self-confidence seem sexy, and Hugh Grant has it to the max. In Four Weddings and a Funeral, he flashed his gleaming schoolboy grin with such adorable awkwardness that he was like the soul of Woody Allen in the body of Mel Gibson. For men, he was a reassuring reminder that someone this good-looking could be hamstrung by anxiety. For women, he marked the return of the sensitive male in a new, yummy form the shy guy as elegant dreamboat. We could root for his romantic success without necessarily fearing for his manhood. But in the calculated-to-be-quirky Welsh fable The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain, Grant is already threatening to turn into a parody of himself. Gazing at Tara FitzGerald, the saucy beauty with whom he's paired, he dithers and stammers and flutters his eyelids; he plays every scene like the ''I think I love you'' speech in Four Weddings. Grant still has those great, peachy dimples, but the fact that he can barely summon the courage to show them while looking into the eyes of an appreciative woman is now on the verge of seeming dangerously coy.
The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill isn't a romantic comedy, exactly. It's more like a storybook yarn with a Hugh Grant romance smuggled into the middle of it. The year is 1917, and though the First World War is raging, it seems to have barely touched the picture-postcard Welsh village of Ffynnon Garw. There, a pair of English cartographers, Reginald Anson (Grant) and George Garrad (Ian McNeice), have arrived to measure the local landmark, a broad, grassy peak named after the town itself. If Ffynnon Garw turns out to be over 1,000 feet high, it will be christened a mountain and labeled so on all British maps. But if it's under 1,000 feet, it will be relegated to mere hill status. When the prized peak is revealed to be 984 feet high, the locals, led by a lusty innkeeper known as Morgan the Goat (Colm Meaney), launch a campaign to heighten it by adding a 20-foot mound on top. Displaying the can-do enthusiasm of an Andy Hardy musical, they trudge up and down the hill, hoisting buckets of earth from their own gardens.
There's something funny and touching in the slightly batty literal-mindedness of this crusade. Since the town's efforts won't mean much unless someone is around to take the new measurement, much of the film is devoted to the citizens' wily attempts to detain the two mapmakers. Enter Betty of Cardiff (FitzGerald), a flirtatious maid summoned by Morgan to keep Reginald company.
The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill has some of the mild absurdist spirit of the Alec Guinness Ealing comedies. But only some. It's hard to shake the feeling that what we're seeing here is the British Isles being strip-mined for tea-cozy eccentricity. Hovering over the movie is the ghost of Bill Forsyth's Local Hero, in which Peter Riegert's lumpish yuppie was reawakened by the magical weirdness of small-town Scotland. Director Peter Chelsom already did a gloss on Forsyth in the Irish fairy tale Hear My Song, and now it's Wales' turn to serve as the setting for the latest rummy Brigadoon. Just what we need an imitation of Bill Forsyth's imitators! Still, writer-director Christopher Monger has studied his models well. He gets stylish performances from Kenneth Griffith as the town's aging reverend, who shivers and smokes like Boris Karloff in full cry, and Meaney, who makes Morgan's very loutishness the essence of his appeal. The photography has the hyper-green beauty of a day washed clear by rain, and the relentless musical theme (it sounds like the '70s novelty hit ''Popcorn'' as orchestrated by Johann Pachelbel) keeps the film spanking along.
Unfortunately, the love story just sits there, drowning in Hugh Grant's tics. In the end, what Reginald seems so nervous about isn't Betty herself, but his own swooning effect upon her; Grant's performance suggests that too much stammering shyness may be a hidden form of egomania. Like the film itself, he's too aware here of his own adorableness. The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill is pleasant, but in a small and overbearingly cute way. As offbeat charmers go, it qualifies as a molehill. B-