Land Girls, The: David Leland WWII Melodrama Starring Rachel Weisz

Adding another interesting chapter to the revisionist history of women’s contribution to WWII, David Leland’s The Land Girls pays tribute to Britain’s Women’s Land Army (WLA), a unit composed of femmes who volunteered to work in the fields as replacement for the men fighting in combat.

Made in the British tradition of quality, this period drama is so exquisitely mounted and so splendidly acted that it might overcome the lack of known stars in its cast and the ultra-romantic center that occasionally gives the film the aura of a soft melodrama. Since the story centers on the actions, feelings, and foibles of 1940s women, The Land Girls holds special allure for older female audiences, but pic is so enjoyable on its own terms that, with the right marketing, Gramercy might reach a broader demographic foundation.

In 1941, a new regiment called the Women’s Land Army, or “The Land Girls,” was formed in England with the purpose of recruiting and dispatching women of all walks of life to help farms in desperate need for workers. Answering the call, three beautiful women, representing different social backgrounds, arrive at a remote spot in rural Dorset.

Stella (Catherine McCormack) is a quiet, romantic woman, about to be married to a naval officer named Philip (Paul Bettany). Quirky and cerebral, Ag (Rachel Weisz) is a Cambridge graduate, who needs to experience a different kind of life. Prue (Anna Friel), the youngest, is a working-class hairdresser whose brazen wit and flirtatious manner serve as a camouflage for her innocence.

The farm is owned by the taciturn Mr. Lawrence (Tom Georgeson), an elderly man, totally committed to the land ever since he had purchased it, at the end of WWI. Mr. Lawrence now depends on the work of his loyal, submissive wife (Maureen O’Brien) and their volatile son, Joe (Steven Mackintosh). Dreaming of becoming a fighter pilot, Joe resents the fact that he’s forced to work at the farm. However, as the only eligible and handsome man around, in due course, Joe courts and beds all three women, each in a distinct style–and with different feelings.

The women spend long, hard working days, ploughing the soil, feeding livestock, milking cows, planting trees, even rat-catching. Significantly, the more traditional domestic work was designated as off-limits, demanding that the Land Girls be assigned to male-oriented tasks. The movie shows how under harsh and intense conditions a unique camaraderie developed among the women, one that strengthened them both individually and collectively.

As writer and director, Leland is obviously attracted to strong, eccentric women, as was evident in his debut, Wish You Were Here, which displayed a knockout performance by Emily Lloyd as a sexually outrageous adolescent, and its sequel, Personal Services (which Leland wrote but didn’t helm), a chronicle of the notorious madame, Cynthia Payne. Lacking the former pic’s rough edge and the latter’s bittersweet tone, Land Girls is more silky and sappy, structured as an old-fashioned meller that occasionally feels like Masterpiece Theater, not so much in its visuals as in its soothing sensibility.

At the same time, Leland doesn’t repeat the error that Bruce Beresford committed in Paradise Road, which was also set in WWII and paid homage to female prisoners in Japanese camps. That film had too many characters (though each was a type) and Beresford couldn’t find the emotional core of the story. Instead, Leland concentrates on three women, endowing each one of them with a distinctive personality–and a set of problems to handle.

Though nicely adapted to the screen, Land Girls still feels like a compressed novel, with the requisite twists and turns of a richly dense story. Indeed, each woman gets to experience sexual initiation, love, marriage, tragedy–and by war’s end, an altered destiny. Nontheless, the film’s more general and relevant themes, love versus duty, the power of friendship and, above all, the role of WLA in providing newfound freedom for women living in conservative era, don’t get lost in the maze.

Land Girls illustrates beautifully how civilians were affected by the War, specifically, the impact of big events on “small” and ordinary lives, and the meaning of falling for the right guy at the wrong time. Pic’s second part centers on the genuine love that develops between Stella and Joe, after he’s denied service due to health problems. Stella leaves, presumably for a short time, to visit her wounded fiance and tell him of her change of heart. Joe waits impatiently for her return at the train station, but Stella never comes back. Their next meeting is depicted in a brief epilogue, when Stella and her comrades are reunited years after the war.

Leland has assembled a large, attractive cast to populate his sprawling saga. McCormack, Weisz and Friel fit so seamlessly into their parts that they form a beautiful ensemble to behold, with their acting at once disciplined and exuberant. Mackintosh, who played the transsexual in Different for Girls, is virtually unrecognizable here, admirably holding his own against the female-dominated cast.

Production values are superlative across the board, especially Henry Braham’s widescreen location lensing (pic was shot in West England), which provides visual pleasure. Other outstanding contributions include Nick Moore’s smooth editing, Caroline Amies’ evocative production design, Shuna Harwood’s unerringly accurate costumes, and Brian Lock’s amiably mellow score, which is complemented by some period tunes.