Adding another interesting chapter to the revisionist history of women’s contribution to WWII, David Leland’s “The Land Girls” pays tribute to Britain’s Women’s Land Army, a unit composed of femmes who volunteered to work in the fields as replacement for the men gone to war. This traditional period drama is so exquisitely mounted and so splendidly acted that it might overcome the lack of known stars in its cast and the ultra-romantic center that occasionally gives the film an aura of soft melodrama. Centering on the actions, feelings and foibles of 1940s women, “The Land Girls” holds special allure for older female audiences, but pic is so enjoyable on its own terms that, with the right marketing, Gramercy could reach a broader demographic.
In 1941, a new regiment called the Women’s Land Army, or the “Land Girls,” was formed in England with the purpose of recruiting women from all walks of life to help farms in desperate need of workers. Answering the call, three beautiful women, representing different social backgrounds, arrive at a remote spot in rural Dorset.
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Stella (Catherine McCormack) is a quiet, romantic woman, about to be married to a naval officer named Philip (Paul Bettany). Quirky and cerebral, Ag (Rachel Weisz) is a Cambridge graduate who wants to experience a different kind of life. Prue (Anna Friel), the youngest, is a working-class hairdresser whose brazen wit and flirtatious manner serve as a camouflage for her innocence.
The farm is owned by the taciturn, elderly Mr. Lawrence (Tom Georgeson), who’s been committed to the land since he purchased his farm at the end of WWI. Lawrence now depends on the work of his loyal, submissive wife (Maureen O’Brien) and their volatile son, Joe (Steven Mackintosh). Dreaming of becoming a fighter pilot, Joe resents the fact that he’s forced to work at the farm. In due course, Joe, as the only eligible and handsome man around, courts and beds all three women.
The women spend long days plowing the soil, feeding livestock, milking cows, planting trees, even rat-catching. Significantly, the more traditional domestic work was designated as off-limits to the Land Girls, who were to be assigned male-oriented tasks. The movie shows how, under harsh conditions, a unique camaraderie developed among the women, one that strengthened them individually and collectively.
As writer and director, Leland is obviously attracted to strong, eccentric women, evidenced in his debut, “Wish You Were Here,” and its sequel, “Personal Services” (which Leland wrote but did not helm). Lacking the former pic’s rough edge and the latter’s bittersweet tone, “Land Girls” is more silky and sappy, structured as an old-fashioned meller that occasionally feels like “Masterpiece Theater,” not so much in its visuals as in its soothing sensibility.
At the same time, Leland doesn’t repeat the error that Bruce Beresford committed in “Paradise Road,” which was also set in WWII and paid homage to female prisoners in Japanese camps. Dealing with too many characters, Beresford couldn’t find the emotional core of the story. Here, Leland concentrates on three women, endowing each with a distinctive personality — and with a set of problems to handle.
Though nicely adapted to the screen, “Land Girls” still feels like a compressed novel, with the requisite twists and turns of a richly dense story. Indeed, each woman gets to experience sexual initiation, love, marriage, tragedy and, by war’s end, an altered destiny. Pic’s second part centers on the genuine love that develops between Stella and Joe, after he’s denied service due to health problems. Nonetheless, the film’s more general themes — love vs. duty, the power of friendship and, above all, the role of WLA in providing new-found freedom for women living in a conservative era — don’t get lost in the maze.
“Land Girls” illustrates beautifully how civilians were affected by the war — specifically, the impact of big events on “small” and ordinary lives and the meaning of falling for the right guy at the wrong time. A brief epilogue reunites the main characters years after the war.Leland has assembled a large, attractive cast to populate his sprawling saga. McCormack, Weisz and Friel fit seamlessly into their parts and form a beautiful ensemble, with their acting at once disciplined and exuberant. Mackintosh, who played the transsexual in “Different for Girls,” is virtually unrecognizable here, admirably holding his own against the female-dominated cast.
Production values are superlative across the board, especially Henry Braham’s widescreen location lensing (pic was shot in western England). Other outstanding contributions include Nick Moore’s smooth editing, Caroline Amies’ evocative production design, Shuna Harwood’s unerringly accurate costumes and Brian Lock’s amiably mellow score, which is complemented by some period tunes.