What could be more welcome than a classic English comedy, bristling with wit and hilarity and crammed with wonderful eccentrics? Since such comedies have become something of a rarity, that's all the more reason to cherish "Cold Comfort Farm," based on Stella Gibbons' 1932 novel, a celebrated parody of Gothic romance and solemn rural fiction.
It's been brought to the screen by director John Schlesinger and writer Malcolm Bradbury with such deftness, giving it a life of its own, that it's not necessary for audiences to be familiar with the literature it satirizes.
Actually, it's breathtakingly self-confident heroine Flora Poste (Kate Beckinsale) fancies herself a potential novelist, stating blithely that by the time she's 50, "I would like to write a novel as good as 'Persuasion,' but with a modern setting of course." To that end, the impoverished Flora, a London socialite and the recent recipient of a meager inheritance, decides to live with one of her many rural relatives, the Starkadders of Sussex.
Her friends think she could scarcely made a worse choice, for the Starkadders are a primitive, unkempt lot, living in an ancient, decrepit manor house under the ferocious domination of Flora's Great-Aunt Ada (Sheila Burrell, a British Sylvia Sidney), who for 20 years has left her room only to give her trembling relatives a semi-annual dressing-down.
The breeding that has given Flora such self-assurance has also made her admirably imperturbable. She wouldn't dream of complaining of living in a place that's scarcely a cut above a pigsty but instead calmly presses on, becoming a cross between Mary Worth and Dolly Levi. In transforming others, however, she transforms herself.
"Cold Comfort Farm" is rife with talk about ancient curses and Ada's off-repeated refrain, "I saw something nasty in the woodshed," referring to an incident that occurred 69 years earlier and that Ada may in fact not be able to recall. Held most tightly in Ada's thrall is her slatternly, middle-aged daughter-in-law Judith (Eileen Atkins), the resident high priestess of gloom and doom.
Judith's preacher-husband Amos (Ian McKellen) is so fervid a speaker that to say his sermons overflow with hellfire and damnation seems an inadequate description. They have two sons, the sexy Seth (Rufus Sewell) and the burly Reuben (Ivan Kaye), and a daughter Elfine (Maria Miles), who's fallen in love with a member of the landed gentry. Flora has her work cut out to straighten out the lives of all these people and even others, but her direct but not unkind approach, her undeniable common sense and genuine concern work miracles.
Beckinsale is yet another of those effortlessly skilled British beauties who light up the screen. Her Flora has such charm and poise and such utter fearlessness that no do-gooder could be more disarming. The skill with which Schlesinger has directed Beckinsale extends to the entire large and scintillating cast, which includes the incomparable Miriam Margolyes as the earthy Starkadder cook and the glorious Stephen Fry as one of Flora's suitors, a great looming figure of raging passion and literary pretension. A beautifully wrought film, it's among the best directed by Schlesinger, who will next bring Larry Kramer's "The Normal Heart" to the screen.
* MPAA rating: PG, for brief sensuality and language. Times guidelines: The film is suitable for sophisticated older children.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
'Cold Comfort Farm'
Kate Beckinsale: Flora Poste
Eileen Atkins: Judith Starkadder
Ian McKellen: Amos Starkadder
Rufus Sewell: Seth Starkadder
A Gramercy Pictures release of a Thames International presentation of a BBC Television/Thames Television production. Director John Schlesinger. Producer Alison Gilby. Executive producers Richard Broke and Antony Root. Screenplay by Malcolm Bradbury, from the novel by Stella Gibbons. Cinematographer Chris Seager. Editor Mark Day. Costumes Amy Roberts. Music Robert Lockhart. Production designer Malcolm Thornton. Art director Jim Holloway. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.
* At selected theaters throughout Southern California.