Cold Comfort Farm (1996): Schlesinger Charming Comedy of Manners

Seattle Festival, May 1996–John Schlesinger reveals again his masterly touch in Cold Comfort Farm, a deliciously eccentric, fabulously acted comedy of manners, based on Stella Gibbons’ popular 1932 novel. Made for TV, in what is reportedly the first collaboration between the BBC and Thames, this uniquely British-flavored film deserves theatrical release before airing on the small screen, for it’s playful mood and wicked wit are likely to delight film and TV audiences.

The fun that Schlesinger and his first-rate ensemble must have had while working on this production is infectious for there isn’t one dull–or quiet–moment in the entire film. Admiring the book ever since he read it as a youngster, Cold Comfort Farm holds special meaning for the director. It also provides an opportunity to revisit his 1967 Far from the Madding Crowd and satirize the gloom and doom of that romantic rural saga. Indeed, Gibbons set out to spoof the serious, soul-searing, rural-set stories of writers like D.H. Lawrence and Mary Webb.

Set in the 1930s, the saga’s heroine is Flora Poste (Kate Beckinsale), a sophisticated young woman who suddenly finds herself orphaned and with no fortune. Undeterred, the feisty Flora tells her socialite friend Mrs. Smiling (Joanna Lumley) that she intends to seek her “rights” and stay with her rustic relatives, the Starkadders, at Cold Comfort Farm. Structured as an enchanting tale, Flora plays the classic role of an outsider, a woman determined to create order out of chaos and in the process changes dramatically the lives of each eccentric member of the farm.

This colorful gallery is headed by Ada Doom (Sheila) Burrell) a stern matriarch who holds her family in an iron grip. One of the film’s running jokes is Ada’s claim to have seen “something nasty in the woodshed” that involves Flora’s father, but she never gets to complete her story.

Ada’s family is a wild bunch indeed. Her harsh, wrinkled daughter, Judith (Eileen Atkins), has two sons: the virile Seth (Rufus Sewell) and the burly Reuben (Ivan Kaye). Other members of the household include Amos (Ian McKellen), an amateur, hell-fire preacher who gets all too excited in his sermons, and Mrs. Beetle (Miriam Margolyes), the loyal and shrewd housekeeper.

The film draws sharp contrasts between London’s suave, elegant parties and life on the ramshackle, dilapidated farm, a rundown ghost of its former grandeur. But under Flora’s resourceful energy and ingenious influence everything changes: the farm gets a new vibrant look, the handsome Seth becomes a movie star (in a truly hilarious scene), his harsh mother gets romantically involved, the stingy matron goes to Paris, there are new attachments–and a big wedding that brings everybody together at the end.

Done skillfully, well-written tale unfolds naturally, though decidedly not in the leisurely, soothing style of Masterpiece Theater; Schlesinger’s pacing is fast, often frentic, as befits the boisterously rowdy nature of the source material.

The ensemble playing of the large, inspired cast is so felicitous that it’s difficult–and perhaps unfair–to single any performer for special praise. Still, in the lead, Beckinsale has the strength of a young Glenda Jackson and the charm of a young Julie Christie. Atkins and Burrell shine as Flora’s cousin and aunt, respectively, and McKellen’s preacher, Margolyes’ housekeeper, Fry’s obsessive beau, Sewell’s dashing Seth, Miles’ attractive Elfine all hit their marks.

Boasting a characteristically British combination of frivolity, eccentricity, and wicked humor, Cold Comfort Farm is as expertly realized as Schlesinger’s best TV work, An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution.