Today’s cinema adventure: Cold Comfort Farm, the 1995 screen adaptation of Stella Gibbons’ popular 1932 novel parodying the English literary tradition of melodramatic rural fiction. Directed by Oscar-winning director John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy) and produced by BBC television for broadcast in the UK, it was later released theatrically in America, adding the prestige of modest box office success to the critical acclaim it had already received. The novel from which it was derived poked fun at the conventions used by such authors as D.H. Lawrence and the Bronte sisters, in which life in the English countryside was depicted as a grim and gothic affair, with characters in the grip of long-festering guilt or otherwise self-defeating psychological dysfunctions, usually in connection with some shameful or dishonorable act committed generations before. The plot of Cold Comfort Farm turns this formula on its ear, as a cheerfully modern young woman comes to live on her relatives’ country estate and sets about applying common sense and psychology to the long-standing status quo that keeps them mired in old-fashioned and unnecessary gloom.
Kate Beckinsale stars as Flora, the heroine, bringing a smart, no-nonsense charm to the character and making us easily believe in her ability to brush aside decades-old stagnation as if it were the cobwebs in a doorway. Surrounding her as the eccentric Doom-Starkadder clan are a host of veteran British thespians, all clearly relishing the chance to sink their teeth into these deliciously ludicrous roles. Eileen Atkins is hilariously dour as Aunt Judith, fatalistic, terminally depressed and possessed of a somewhat unhealthy obsession for her libidinous son, Seth; and as the latter, Rufus Sewell strikes the perfect satirical balance to make his vainglorious, womanizing character likable instead of insufferable. Ian McKellen enjoys an uncharacteristically rough-edged turn as Uncle Amos, an amateur preacher, sporting a ridiculous mash-up of a rural accent as he gleefully spews his fire-and-brimstone sermon from the pulpit. Sheila Burrell is delightfully domineering as Aunt Ada Doom, the reclusive and tight-fisted matriarch of Cold Comfort Farm, ruling her family with brittle authority as the continually reminds them that she “saw something nasty in the woodshed.” Rounding out the household are fine performances from Freddie Jones, Miriam Margolyes, and Ivan Kaye, among others; and in non-family roles, there is standout work from Stephen Fry as a pretentiously progressive writer enamored of Flora, and the always-magnificent Joanna Lumley as an impeccable London widow who serves as her friend and mentor.
The screenplay by Malcolm Bradbury captures the goofy sense of fun intended by author Gibbons, sending up the melodramatic conceits of this popular sub-genre of British literature with a smart, optimistic viewpoint and a healthy dose of subtly hilarious wordplay; there are some truly memorable lines (my favorite comes from Amos as he preaches before his quivering congregation: “There’ll be no butter in Hell!”) and the plotting, though ultimately just as unconvincingly tidy as the overwrought romances being parodied, weaves cleverly enough through its pleasant course that we don’t really mind its unbelievability. There is also plenty of authentic English scenery- idyllic woodlands and meadows, rustic villages and farmlands, elegantly-appointed estates and salons- to provide eye candy along the way, and director Schlesinger keeps things visually stimulating by keeping his camera moving and using a wide variety of angles and perspectives- as well, of course, as keeping us continually focused on the real meat of the matter, superb actors portraying delightful characters.
Cold Comfort Farm is not a deep movie, nor does it yield a lot of stimulating conversation regarding its themes or its technique, at least not in most circles. It does, however, yield a lot of fun; it’s smart and literate enough to satisfy those seeking intellectual diversion, yet completely accessible for the viewer with no connection to the English Lit crowd, and it provides plenty of hearty laughs for both kinds of audiences (as well as the rest of us who probably fall somewhere in between). After all, outrageous behavior is outrageous behavior, whether or not you have read any of Thomas Hardy’s books, and in Cold Comfort Farm, there is no shortage of it.