Tidying Up a 'Farm'Review: A thoroughly competent and engaging busybody brings warmth to ``Cold Comfort Farm'' in John Schlesinger's delightful movie.

June 14, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

Ah, nothing like a trip to the farm to liven one's dreary spirits, especially if it's "Cold Comfort Farm," John Schlesinger's smashing new film version of the beloved Stella Gibbons novel of 1934.

For those unfamiliar with the source material (as I was), "Cold Comfort Farm" is an extended journey into parody. The Irish author, fed up with Hardy's brooding peasants and Lawrence's loin-seething intellectuals that dominated the quality lit set of the Thirties, sent them up so high some people now have trouble taking them seriously. Gibbons imagined an English busybody and Miss Fixit -- a woman of totally unimpressible practicality -- who journeys to the rural dwelling of the title and sets about to repair everything, including the plumbing and the literature.

Schlesinger, working with a brio that has not been apparent in his dim American mercenary work of late (like the lamentable "An Eye for an Eye"), seems to be having the time of his life. His eye is dead-on for the exaggerations of literary stereotypes, but the film never feels static, like so many parodies; it keeps moving briskly along.

The driving force is Kate Beckinsale, as Flora Poste, who finds herself inconveniently orphaned at 22 with a measly hundred pounds per year to support herself. Since, to a young woman of her breeding and education, the concept of "work" is utterly unacceptable, she shops about for a set of acceptable relatives to sponge off of for the rest of her life.

And thus she comes to the Starkadder place, called "Cold Com-fort Farm," out in some rural swamp a million miles from London, which appears to be inhabited by close relatives of Chas. Addams' family, that is, if you can scrape the dirt off their faces industriously enough to actually see them. The place is in the clammy cold grasp of Ada Doom (take that, Thomas Hardy!) who once saw something in the woodpile, and hasn't been out of her room since. It is administrated on a daily basis by a forlorn sad sack named Judith Starkadder, mother of three odd boys, wife of an odder husband and overseer of the whole mad, filthy place. It's like a genetic backwater of some Appalachian hellhole, or as someone called it, "Darwin's waiting room."

Father Amos Starkadder (the great Ian McKellen) is a blooming religious nut who preaches fire and brimstone to a small group of congregants who are titillated by the prospect of hell, son Seth (Rufus Sewell) believes himself to be God's gift to women and on and on it goes.

Well! There's work to be done and Flora sets out to do it. Beckinsale, previously unknown, walks a deliciously thin line. The busybody is almost always the nasty person in the story, but she's so no-nonsense and so damned smart as she sets about to fix things up, the movie becomes completely enjoyable. Her great advantage, and the frostiest comeuppance that one can imagine delivering to the old mandarins of literature: She refuses to take it seriously. Her attitude, simply stated, is: Oh, come now. None of that here, please. Imagine Julie Andrews' Ms. Poppins loose in the cabinet called British literature and you've got some idea of what's going on.

She's particularly dismissive to Mr. Mybug (Stephen Fry, the British Edward Herrmann), who fancies himself the embodiment of the Lawrentian male, a force of the cosmos whose right to orgasm is as inalienable as the stars. She treats him like an annoying little popinjay.

But Flora understands instinctively that Cold Comfort Farm is miswired, and she's not talking electricity. She's talking emotions: Nobody is with the right person, and the wrong dispersion of relationships is like a family curse. So, scrub-a-dub-dub and whistle-while-you-work, she takes a brush and elbow grease not merely to clean the floors but to rearrange everybody's love life. Kate is so chipper and unflappable in the face of horrified resistance that the movie becomes an exercise in the moral force of tidiness. It was so enjoyable it almost made me pick up my room. Almost.

'Cold Comfort Farm'

Starring Kate Beckinsale and Eileen Atkins

Directed by John Schlesinger

Released by Gramercy

Rated PG-13

Sun score *** 1/2

Pub Date: 6/14/96

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