I'M ALWAYS DISTRESSED when a great director (or actor,
for that matter) loses his talent and becomes a sad, watered-down
version of himself. How can the maudlin, self-parodying Al Pacino
of half a dozen bad movies in the last few years, including the
rancid Two Bits (if you missed this one, just be glad),
have anything to do with the wonderful actor in Dog Day Afternoon?
And how could John Schlesinger, who made enduringly great films
in the '70s like Midnight Cowboy and Sunday Bloody Sunday,
be the same guy who churned out such uninspired dreck as An
Eye for An Eye and Pacific Heights in the '80s?
The question of vanishing talent in general and Schlesinger's
plummet in particular has been tormenting me for a while, which
is why I'm especially happy to report that his new film, Cold
Comfort Farm, a comedy produced for BBC-Thames TV, is simply
wonderful. The switch to comedy and a lighter touch seems to have
made all the difference for Schlesinger, and this breezy film
is a pleasure from start to finish.
Set in England in the '30s, Cold Comfort Farm is the story
of Flora Poste (Kate Beckinsale), a plucky heroine if ever there
was one. Her parents have died and she doesn't much seem to care;
rather, she decides to seize the opportunity to further her literary
aspirations. She and her cosmopolitan mentor (Absolutely Fabulous'
Joanna Lumley) decide she will go live with whatever relatives
seem the most "interesting" so that she can write about
them later. The winners are a dark, troubled clan called the Starkadders
who, as it turns out, live on the cursed acres of Cold Comfort
Farm under the shadow of some unspeakably nasty, vaguely sexual
The film is based on the novel Stella Gibbons wrote in the 1930's
with the intention of poking fun at the overwrought prose of writers
like D.H. Lawrence; the film functions as a piece of modern satire
that pokes fun at the recent bumper crop of period movies--you
know, the ones with plucky heroines sweeping through the English
countryside in long skirts. Though Cold Comfort Farm is
set in the 20th century, Flora Poste has the same indomitable
spirit as those ladies in dresses, and her world is similarly
limited by her gender. (And she's an almost perfect parody of
Diana Palmer, the blandly feisty '30s heroine of The Phantom).
Flora sets about changing the farm with a mixture of wily smarts
and inherent good sense that's remarkably similar to the smug,
self-satisfied spirit of Nancy Drew.
Flora's avocation is to "make things tidy," and luckily
there couldn't be a place any dirtier than the gothic Starkadder
farm. The Starkadders are ruled by a disturbed matriarch who "saw
something nasty in the woodshed" when she was a little girl,
and controls her family through the sheer load of evil and shame
puddled in this phrase. Her daughter Judith (Eileen Atkins) is
afflicted with a similarly psychotic disposition and has pictures
of her son Seth (Rufus Sewell), whom she loves with an unmotherly
love, arranged in a shrine in her room. Seth swaggers around the
farm, striking macho poses and bedding the stray milkmaid. He
is fond of asserting that "all women want to suck the life
out of ye."
Flora will have none of this and sets her cap on arranging all
the messiness of the Starkadders into tidy piles. The clever perfection
with which she finds solutions to a litany of problems accounts
for at least half the fun of this movie. She gives a little mop
to the old farmhand who has been washing dishes for years with
a twig. (He declines to soil it, however, referring to it as "a
beautiful white rose.") She suggests to the patriarch of
the family (a depressed Ian McKellen) that perhaps he could spread
the gospel further if he had a Ford truck, and he lights out for
a better life. All the while her relatives refer to her as "Robert
Poste's child" and mumble strange portents. They're increasingly
intrigued, though, by her promise of modern life, until eventually
the decaying farm begins to take on the bright, flower-strew look
of the farmhouse in Babe.
One of the most refreshing aspects of this movie is how light
weight it is, in the best sense. John Schlesinger's films, and
movies in general, seem to have gotten into the habit of dredging
up new and escalating conflicts for their own sake. Flora Poste,
on the other hand, faces a smaller but more engaging problem:
How will she ever manage to get her bedroom curtains washed?