Cold Comfort Farm (1995)

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.

An Englishman in New York (2009)


Today’s cinema adventure: An Englishman in New York, the 2009 British telefilm which marked the return of John Hurt to the role of noted real-life author/performer/raconteur/gay icon Quentin Crisp. A follow-up to the acclaimed1975 telefilm based on Crisp’s landmark memoir, The Naked Civil Servant, which made Hurt into a star and won him a BAFTA for Best Actor, this modest biopic covers the later years of the famous eccentric’s life, when he became a celebrated resident of Manhattan and a polarizing figure in the continuing struggle for gay rights. While Hurt maintains his customary brilliance in revisiting and expanding his legendary performance, this outing lacks the strong, central drive of the original film, which had the benefit of focusing on Crisp’s early struggle and triumph in asserting his homosexuality and his individuality in the repressive England of early 20th century. Part of the reason is likely that the first outing was built upon the solid ground of Crisp’s superb book, which portrayed his early life and experiences as a personal journey culminating in his courtroom victory blow against the antiquated morality laws which kept most English homosexuals fearfully cringing in the closet; but here, writer Brian Fillis attempts to encapsulate the remarkable life which followed those events into a 90 minute whirlwind, consolidating characters and contriving scenes in order to address key issues and events. To be sure, he has a cohesive purpose- the main focus here is Crisp’s fiercely guarded individuality, which put him at odds with the ongoing gay rights movement and often made him the object of exclusion within his own community (particularly after an infamous remark that AIDS was “a fad”)- and he does an admirable job of creating a portrait of a man who is forced into continuing growth in spite of himself; but the end result is considerably less satisfying than Civil Servant and leaves us wondering about many of the blank spots in between. Nevertheless, there are many reasons to admire this belated sequel, not the least of which is the rich background of late-century New York scenery lending an authentic documentary feel to the proceedings. By far, however, the greatest joy here is the magnificent performance of John Hurt, who once again captures to perfection the physical and vocal character of this legendary figure while simultaneously conveying the depth of emotion and experience which lies beneath that flamboyant exterior; in Hurt’s hands, the affectations of dress and manner become (as they were in real life) an expression of Crisp’s true self rather than a costume proclaiming his refusal to conform. Nevertheless, in spite of the more obvious success of his characterization, it is in the more intimate moments when Hurt’s brilliance as an actor really shines through- his weathered face and soulful eyes wordlessly express volumes, whether he is confronting the thoughtless prejudice of younger gay men or his own mortality. Supporting him are an array of established character actors- Dennis O’Hare, Swoosie Kurtz, Cynthia Nixon- who are never quite allowed to rise above the constraints of the condensed format, although Jonathan Tucker has some nice moments as artist Patrick Angus, whose work was championed into success by Crisp. Overall, though its hard to call An Englishman in New York a worthy successor to the still-lauded Civil Servant, it offers many rewards in its own right; and though it may ultimately contain less insight into Quentin Crisp than the Sting-penned song from which it takes its title, it is still a fitting and necessary epilogue to the story of a man who changed the world by refusing to change himself.



Microcosmos: le peuple de l’herbe (1996)

Today’s cinema adventure: Microcosmos: le peuple de l’herbe (the grass people), a 1996 French documentary depicting the behavior and interaction of various insects and other minuscule creatures as recorded with specially-developed cameras and microphones that reveal their tiny world in a staggering and beautiful wealth of detail.  Fifteen years in the making and originally shown on French television, it was marketed in the U.S. as a family-friendly nature film and became a relative hit at the box office- for easily understandable reasons.  With remarkable cinematography that rivals today’s high-def technology in clarity and depth, directors Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou construct a riveting chronicle of the world under our feet, accomplishing the improbable effect of inspiring empathy with the kinds of animals that, for most, normally inspire nothing but revulsion. Spiders, snails, mantises, ants, bees, earthworms, dung beetles and water bugs enact their daily experiences, and the titanic nature of their struggles is made visceral by the scale in which they are shown; the audience, transported into their tiny realm, is given a bug’s eye view of what it takes to survive, as well as being treated to some breathtaking footage of nature’s beauty, all to the accompaniment of a haunting score by film composer Bruno Coulais.  Even more remarkable is that, with a bare minimum of narration (provided in the English-language version by Kristen Scott-Thomas), the audience is treated to drama, suspense, and even humor, arising naturally from the behavior of the film’s multi-legged cast; the overall result is a film experience that is not only educational, but entertaining, awe-inspiring, and, somehow, strangely moving.