Cold Comfort Farm in rural Sussex is the sort of place where the pigs eat better than the people. Their conversation and manners also are demonstrably superior, and the farm is a disorderly house much in need of correction.
If it is not obvious to the Starkwadder family, an eclectic selection from Britain’s densely populated lunatic fringe that has lived on Cold Comfort Farm for generations, it is painfully clear to Miss Flora Poste.
Flora is an aspiring writer who is given to noting that she shares with Jane Austen an abhorrence of mess and slovenliness, which are the chief products of Cold Comfort Farm.
When her parents die and leave her with an income that will support only genteel poverty, Flora has no choice but to live under the Starkadder roof. More than a clash of town and country ensues, for Flora is bent on tidying up lives as much as introducing alien notions of cleanliness and civility to her disheveled relatives.
John Schlesinger’s wickedly funny “Cold Comfort Farm” is a considerable comfort to any movie-goer who despairs of finding literate comedy this summer. It is a resourceful, boisterously acted adaptation of Stella Gibbons’ cherished 1932 satire.
Gibbons, who died in 1989, published “Cold Comfort Farm” as a barbed demolition of D.H. Lawrence and fiction in which upper-class ladies risked scandal in liaisons with manly peasants. The target may have long since disappeared, but the humor is timeless.
Kate Beckinsale, who played Hero in Kenneth Branagh’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” brings a prim confidence to Flora. She is impregnable in her belief that she can orchestrate the lives, ambitions and romances of the Starkwadders.
The Starkadders take Flora in to atone for some unspoken wrong they inflicted on her father. The older Starkadders are given to referring to her as “Robert Poste’s child,” as though she were some foundling to be raised as a Christian duty.
Flora files reports from the front back to London, where her ineffably snooty friend Mrs. Smiling (Joanna Lumley from “Absolutely Fabulous”) offers cold comfort from a safe distance.
The Starkadder household is rife with internecine jealousies and rivalries, and is ruled by a cantankerous matriarch who comes downstairs just twice a year to heap scorn on her brood. They include Amos (Ian McKellen), who would rather preach the gospel than farm, and Seth (Rufus Sewell), the village hunk who has to reconcile his randiness with a profound distrust of women. Initially, his entrenched suspicion extends to Flora. She has much work to do and much resistance and stupidity to overcome as she rearranges the Starkwadders’ lives like so many flowers in a vase.
Naturally, these transitions are not accomplished without changes in Flora herself. “Cold Comfort Farm” has a superficial geniality, but there is much biting observation beneath the surface in the near-perfect screenplay by novelist Malcolm Bradbury. The comedy is Schlesinger’s finest work in many years. Rarely has a trip to the country been more refreshing and revealing.
xxxx “COLD COMFORT FARM” Locations: Magic Lantern cinemas Credits: Directed by John Schlesinger, starring Eileen Atkins, Kate Beckinsale, Sir Ian McKellen, Stephen Fry Running time: 1:45 Rating: PG
OTHER VIEWS Other views of “Cold Comfort Farm”: Janet Maslin/New York Times: “Cold Comfort Farm” isn’t much more than a parade of … mischievous stereotypes, but its characters are conceived and played with gratifying wit. Michael H. Price/Fort Worth StarTelegram: Most often, “Cold Comfort Farm” underscores every preserved second of “Green Acres,” the TV sitcom that helped to shape the town-vs.-city perceptions of a generation.