There are a couple reasons why director John Schlesinger's Cold Comfort Farm should have made no splashier an American debut than Masterpiece Theatre. For one, Schlesinger filmed the project early last year to be broadcast on BBC-TV. Only a strong, favorable response from film festivals worldwide led to a chance to release the film in American theaters.
For another, this good-hearted, ill-mannered comedy is based on a novel published in 1932 and so beloved by the English that they force their children to read it in school. Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm was the book literature teachers--and therefore literature students--regarded as a little bit naughty. Not because of the oblique references to sexuality (which Schlesinger and company have amplified, though not outright vulgarized), but for the way it sneered at great English novels about class hypocrisy. Dickens, Austen, and Hardy wrote supple prose dramatizing the noose drawn tight around the necks of individuals trapped amid Britain's class system. But Stella Gibbons skipped along and said, "To hell with it, let's finish the execution!" Her frisky little novel announced that there are two types of people in the world--cultivated and uncultivated--and it's an absolute patrician obligation to retrain the savages, as much as one can.
In other words, like all successful satires, the story in Cold Comfort Farm lampoons manners and mores by confirming their worst motives. This means it helps to be British to understand precisely what is being ridiculed in any given scene. At the film's screening, two women with English accents in front of me cackled with delighted disgust at a scene in which the heroine turns up her already upturned nose at a bowl of goopy porridge; they'd obviously shared the same sentiment firsthand.
Still, there is a smart, flinty-eyed, malicious wit swimming beneath the placid surface of Cold Comfort Farm that transcends national borders. You may not appreciate the film for its cultural minutiae, but it will surely serve as a big wet raspberry to the frowning moralism of imports like Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion.
Indeed, it's refreshingly easy to identify with Flora Poste (Kate Beckinsale), the recently orphaned, plain-spoken 22-year-old of means who decides to visit the dilapidated Sussex Farm of her distant relatives, the Starkadders. Flora is an idle Londonite who spends her young adulthood sipping champagne at jazz lounges with family friend Smiling (Joanna Lumley). She wants to live with her backward cousins because she is thirsty for life experience--she plans to publish a novel at the age of 52--and because the mysterious letter from the Starkadders requesting her presence is "both deplorable and interesting."
She arrives on Cold Comfort Farm and sets out, little by little, to civilize the piggish Starkadders. They roam around the filthy farmhouse in sweaty rags, barking at each other. There's Judith (Eileen Atkins), the death-obsessed, distraught ma; Amos (Ian MacKellen), the vainglorious, blood-and-thunder preacher pa; the brothers, dimwitted Reuben (Ivan Kaye) and oversexed Seth (Rufus Sewell); and sister Elfine (Maria Miles), whose poetry lessons in school have inspired her to run through forests and across hills like a will o' the wisp, gauzy cape fluttering behind her. Grandmother Ada (Sheila Burrell) is the gnarled, spiteful matriarch who never leaves her room because she was traumatized as a child by seeing "something nasty in the woodshed."
By turning them on to tea time, fashion magazines, contraceptive devices, automobiles, and psychiatrists--among other bourgeois trappings--Flora pries the Starkadders one by one from the grip of Ada Doom, a woman so controlling she holds impromptu "counting" sessions to make sure nobody has run away.
The character of Flora is made comic by her own literary pretensions (a theme expanded by Schlesinger and screenwriter Malcom Bradbury). She worships D.H. Lawrence and scribbles prose the color and consistency of smashed grapes (her favorite description for the sun, "the golden orb," is invoked in feverish voice-over throughout the film).
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Yet there is another kind of comedy in her self-absorption. Flora rearranges the lives of total strangers for a reason no more profound than that she "hates messes," but they all emerge the better for it. She is intellectually, emotionally, morally superior by birthright, it would seem, since she was born with good looks, good taste, benevolence, sound judgment, and money--not necessarily in that order, of course. That classist concept subverts the foundation of quiet sorrow built by a succession of 19th-century British costume flicks imported to America in the '80s and '90s. Cold Comfort Farm is destined to bore many American moviegoers because it reverses a sacred Yank pop-culture equation. Whether Julia Roberts brings a rich lady's store to its knees with Richard Gere's credit card in Pretty Woman or The Clampetts inbreed and populate LA high society in The Beverly Hillbillies, we want to see privileged people humiliated, or at the very least trumped, by their social inferiors.
But John Schlesinger infests the underdogs in Cold Comfort Farm with fleas, mange, and every other dinner-party liability you can imagine. Schlesinger is a veteran director of American and British productions whose one constant in a 30-year career is material that pits individuals of vastly different backgrounds against each other. Whether it be Midnight Cowboy, Marathon Man, or his groundbreaking cinematic study of the vagaries of bisexuality, Sunday, Bloody Sunday, Schlesinger has earned a reputation for drawing subtleties from actors who play characters stranded in extreme situations. Although nobody involved with this film was mindful of it when shooting began, his bicontinental reputation makes him the perfect choice to carry the story's withering humor between cultures.
Cold Comfort Farm may ultimately prove too British to score big with U.S. audiences, but it would be a shame for even the most Anglophobic among us to dismiss it as a trifle unworthy of translation. Sophisticated world-cinephiles would never admit to the perverse thrill of watching costumed gentry lord it over servants and other members of the working class. Cold Comfort Farm makes that confession unnecessary: It's a dirty but delicious little secret among friends.
Cold Comfort Farm. Gramercy. Kate Beckinsale, Eileen Atkins, Joanna Lumley. Written by Malcom Bradbury, based on the novel by Stella Gibbons. Directed by John Schlesinger. Opens May 31.