Aching Acres

Stella Gibbons' 1932 debut novel Cold Comfort Farm is a sort of war between literary dispositions: Gibbons pits the fatalistic sense of Thomas Hardy's haunted rustics against the cheery, matter-of-fact sensibility of a cultivated young Jane Austen-cum-P.G. Wodehouse heroine. As Gibbons bets on the latter, Miss Flora Poste, the result is a merry war. When she is orphaned at 20, the beautiful and well-educated--but not wealthy--Miss Poste, wishing to gather material for a career as a novelist, decides to impose herself upon a family of distant relatives named Starkadder, who reside at the Sussex farm of the title.

The denizens of Cold Comfort Farm turn out to be a crew of gloomy eccentrics, self-consciously committed to tragic wildness and portentous despair. Presiding over the farm is Great-Aunt Ada Doom, who demands that her family stay near her and share her angst on the grounds that, as a child, she "saw something nasty in the woodshed." Told that the farm is cursed--"seeds wither as they fall into the ground, and the Earth will not nourish 'em"--Flora promptly asks why the family doesn't sell it "and buy another one, without any curse on it." The reply to this and any other common-sense suggestion is a grandly meaningless refrain: "There have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm."

John Schlesinger's film version of Cold Comfort Farm is a broadly played but faithful and often hilarious presentation of the book's gallery of oddball characters, rendered by several of the best Brit character players. Great-Aunt Ada (Sheila Burrell) is cared for by the forbidding Judith Starkadder (Eileen Atkins), who spends her free time throwing tarot cards, her face grimly unsurprised at the dire prophecies she reads on them. Judith's husband, Amos (Ian McKellen), is a preacher, spewing sermons of determinist hellfire to a flock called the Quivering Brethren. One of their two sons, Seth (Rufus Sewell), is a studly, incorrigible seducer with a passion for movies. Long-suffering cousin Adam Lambsbreath (Freddie Jones) frets about the fate of his poetry-mad will-o'-the-wisp daughter Elfine (Maria Miles).

Flora--or, as the Cold Comfort Farmers insist on calling her, "Robert Poste's Child," a reference to a mysterious, unspecified debt they claim to owe her--is not the sort to allow a curse to daunt her. Her passion is for making things tidy and comfortable, and she energetically sets about the business of tidying up the lives of her strange cousins.

The joy in all that is that Flora's blue-blood unflappability is satirized just as keenly, and just as affectionately, as are the mad Starkadders. Their pungent craziness doesn't much faze her, as her upper-class London friends are shown to be of about the same level of eccentricity. Her rich lady friend Mrs. Smiling (a resplendent Joanna Lumley) has an odd fixation with corsets and brassieres, which she collects and displays on a gallery of mannequins. And Flora's blandly handsome, decidedly nonpungent love interest Charles (Christopher Bowen) seems just right for her--he's a tidy and comfortable young man.

Kate Beckinsale, called upon only for demure radiance as Hero in Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing, gets a good deal more to do as Flora. She looks stunning in her '30s finery, but she's not merely being showcased--Schlesinger uses the incongruity of how great she looks in the squalid surroundings of CCF as a sort of running gag, just as Jonathan Lynn did with Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny.

Beckinsale's performance has the same poised smartness. Along with Austen and Wodehouse, there is perhaps a bit of a Lewis Carroll heroine to Beckinsale's Flora; she's Isabel, self-reliant in the face of awesome peril, or Alice in her dismissive attitude at the Red Queen's demand for her head. And the irrational, arbitrary rules by which life is lived at Cold Comfort Farm qualify it to be a Wonderland of some sort.

Schlesinger, working from a leisurely but not flabby script by Malcolm Bradbury, manages to control his artsy impulses. He doesn't overwork the film visually; his touch is straightforward and sunny in the manner of a Masterpiece Theatre show. Still, despite a rather irksomely pat final reel, you aren't likely to mistake Cold Comfort Farm for any such genteel Brit TV--the performances are too full-blooded.

McKellen makes a small classic of his sermon scene, in which Amos teasingly, indulgently favors his congregation with a vision of its ruin. But Atkins' hysterics as Judith and the low-key sweetness of Jones (an actor not known for his underplaying) as Adam are no less commanding. A word should also be said for Harry Ditson, who's a scream as the American, Mr. Neck. Best of all, perhaps, is Burrell as Great-Aunt Ada, who manages to make it awful and funny each of the many, many times she reminds her family that she saw something nasty in the woodshed. No one has suffered as she has--when she croaks to Flora "Everything depends on me," she's human selfishness personified.--M. V. Moorhead

Cold Comfort Farm:
Directed by John Schlesinger; with Kate Beckinsale, Eileen Atkins, Sheila Burrell, Freddie Jones, Stephen Fry, Ian McKellen, Rufus Sewell and Joanna Lumley.

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