John Schlesinger reveals again his masterly touch in “Cold Comfort Farm,” a deliciously eccentric, fabulously acted comedy of manners, based on Stella Gibbons’ popular 1932 novel. Made for TV in what is reportedly the first collaboration between the BBC and Thames and shown just once in the U.K. over the holidays, this uniquely British-flavored film deserves theatrical release before airing on the small screen, for its playful mood and wicked wit are likely to delight film audiences as well as home viewers. The fun that Schlesinger and his first-rate ensemble must have had while working on this production is infectious, for there isn’t one dull — or quiet — moment in the film.
“Cold Comfort Farm” holds special meaning for the director, who has admired the book since he read it as a youngster. It also provides an opportunity to revisit the milieu of his 1967 “Far From the Madding Crowd” and satirize the gloom and doom of that romantic rural saga. Indeed, Gibbons set out to spoof the serious, soul-searing, rural-set stories of writers like D.H. Lawrence and Mary Webb, not to mention Thomas Hardy.
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In the 1930s-set saga, Flora Poste (Kate Beckinsale), a sophisticated young woman, suddenly finds herself orphaned and with no fortune. Undeterred, the feisty Flora tells her socialite friend Mrs. Smiling (Joanna Lumley) that she intends to seek her “rights” and stay with her rustic relatives, the Starkadders , at Cold Comfort Farm.
Flora plays the classic role of an outsider, a woman determined to create order out of chaos who, in the process, changes dramatically the lives of each eccentric resident of the farm.
This colorful gallery is headed by Ada Doom (Sheila Burrell), a stern matriarch who holds her family in an iron grip. One of the film’s running jokes is Ada’s claim to have seen “something nasty in the woodshed” that involved Flora’s father, but she never gets to complete her story.
Ada’s family is a wild bunch indeed. Her harsh, wrinkled daughter, Judith (Eileen Atkins), has two sons: the virile Seth (Rufus Sewell) and the burly Reuben (Ivan Kaye). Other members of the household include Amos (Ian McKellen), an amateur, hell-fire preacher who gets all too excited in his sermons, and Mrs. Beetle (Miriam Margolyes), the loyal and shrewd housekeeper.
Malcolm Bradbury’s well-written script draws sharp contrasts between London’s suave, elegant parties and life on the ramshackle, dilapidated farm, a run-down ghost of its former grandeur. But under Flora’s resourceful energy and ingenious influence, everything changes: The farm gets a new, vibrant look; the handsome Seth becomes a movie star (in a truly hilarious scene); his harsh mother gets romantically involved; the stingy matron goes to Paris; and new attachments are formed before everybody is brought together for a big wedding at the end.
Tale unfolds naturally, though decidedly not in the leisurely, soothing style of “Masterpiece Theatre”; Schlesinger’s pacing is fast, often frenetic, as befits the boisterously rowdy nature of the source material.
The ensemble playing of the large, inspired cast is so felicitous that it’s difficult — and perhaps unfair — to single out any performer for special praise. Still, in the lead, Beckinsale has the strength of a young Glenda Jackson and the charm of a young Julie Christie. Atkins and Burrell shine as Flora’s cousin and aunt, respectively, and McKellen’s preacher, Margolyes’ housekeeper, Stephen Fry’s obsessive beau, Sewell’s dashing Seth and Maria Miles’ attractive Elfine all hit their marks.
Boasting a characteristically British combination of frivolity, eccentricity and wicked humor, “Cold Comfort Farm” is as expertly realized as Schlesinger’s best TV work, “An Englishman Abroad” and “A Question of Attribution.”