The Austin Chronicle

Cold Comfort Farm

Rated PG, 92 min. Directed by John Schlesinger. Starring Kate Beckinsale, Eileen Atkins, Sheila Burrell, Joanna Lumley, Rufus Sewell, Stephen Fry, Freddie Jones, Ian Mckellen, Miriam Margolyes, Ivan Kaye.

REVIEWED By Alison Macor, Fri., June 14, 1996

With charm and plucky resolve not unlike that possessed by Cold Comfort Farm's main character Flora Poste (Beckinsale, who played Hero in Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing), the latest project of director John Schlesinger (The Falcon and the Snowman, Midnight Cowboy) grows on its viewer, wearing down any hesitations that may keep him or her from embracing the unique ensemble that is the Starkadder family. Schlesinger, with screenwriter Malcolm Bradbury, brings to the screen Stella Gibbons' popular 1932 English novel, which is, among other things, a satire of various literary genres. Cold Comfort Farm is also about a young woman, orphaned after her father's death, who chooses to live with her “country cousins” instead of remaining in the social throes of 1930s London with her friend Mrs. Smiling (Lumley, Patsy on the BBC's Absolutely Fabulous). Intent on becoming a writer “like Jane Austen,” Flora believes that a little bit of rural living will give her the experiences and time she needs to write her first novel. However, she finds herself caught up in the slightly gloomy and definitely eccentric goings-on at the Starkadder home, a rundown estate called Cold Comfort Farm. Constantly referring to Flora as “Robert Poste's child” is only one of the humorous idiosyncrasies adopted by these characters. And what characters they are! There's cousin Judith (Atkins), whose shrine to her libertine son Seth (Sewell) speaks volumes about her mothering; her husband Amos (McKellen), a self-ordained preacher convinced that the entire world will burn in hell; their oldest son Ruben (Kaye), whose inheritance of the farm is threatened by Flora's arrival; and a host of other relatives badly in need of baths. Most notable is Cold Comfort's reclusive matriarch, Ada Doom (Burrell), whose presence opens the film and introduces another of the farm's unexplained mysteries, concerning something nasty in the woodshed. Together the cast, the director, and the screenwriter work to make the characters off-centered but realistic, with plenty of room for warmth. All of the performances are noteworthy, from Beckinsale's Flora -- whose single-mindedness likens her to both a Jane Austen heroine and an English Energizer Bunny -- to smaller roles such as Stephen Fry's bombastic writer Mybug, whose pursuit of Flora knows no limits. By the end of the film, Flora's visit has reinvented not only the Starkadder family and its beloved Cold Comfort Farm but also her own resolve to write. With its wonderful story and engaging heroine, Cold Comfort Farm offers a thoroughly enchanting summer respite.

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