John Schlesinger’s 1996 film Cold Comfort Farm, is a hilarious, pointed satire on pastoral romances. Instead of romanticizing the country, the film – based on Stella Gibbons’ 1932 – skewers the bucolic surroundings of Sussex and its colorful characters. Starring Kate Beckinsale as Flora, an orphaned society girl who decides to move the titular estate after being shunned by her London relatives. But instead of being despondent over her lot in life, she takes this opportunity to hone her writing skills. And rather than let things happen, she decides to stir some shit, essentially casting her relatives as puppets, which she controls easily.
It’s interesting that Beckinsale starred in the BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’ Emma (and Persuasion gets a few shout outs throughout the film), because Flora’s very similar to Emma Woodhouse. Because she’s so beautiful, intelligent, and witty, she feels she should intrude on the personal lives of those around her. And it’s frightening how easy it is for Flora to dictate the future of her relatives.
The family – the Starkadders – is head by a crone, Ada Doom (Sheila Burrell), who is haunted by something “nasty” she saw in the tool shed as a child. She’s ensconced in her bedroom, unable to move on. She rules the Starkadders with a manipulative fist, forbidding them from moving on with their lives, or moving out of the house by insisting, “There has always been Starkadders on Cold Comfort Farm.”
When Flora arrives at Cold Comfort Farm, she’s looked on with suspicion and curiosity. The eccentric Judith Starkadder (Eileen Atkins) welcomes Flora, but not warmly – she feels that her family wronged Flora’s, and is trying to atone. But we never know what the wrong is, and neither does Flora.
But Flora’s not upset, nor is she searching for revenge. Instead, she sincerely wants to help those around her. Judith’s holy roller husband, Amos (Ian McKellan), holds court at the local church; the lascivious Lothario son Seth (Rufus Sewell) has designs on Hollywood; and ethereal daughter Elfin (Maria Miles) is in love with a squire’s son. Flora takes it upon herself to start meddling in her cousins’ lives – she convinces Amos to take his message of God on the road; she decides to get Seth into the movies; and despite Elfin’s betrothal to a local, Flora schemes to get her engaged with the squire’s scion.
And though Flora’s self-regard can be a bit off-putting, there is no meanness in her behavior. She means well, and she really wants the best for those around her. And like Emma – a lot of her actions come from being so self-confident. And because she’s so kind, her character is very appealing: and Beckinsale does a great job portraying the conceited, but generous Flora. But the actress is a straight man to the cast of crazies around her: McKellan (eons away from Gandalf) is a blustery hoot, while Stephen Fry, as Flora’s oily would-be love, is terrific fun. Atkins imbues her character with some depth and poignancy and Miriam Margolyes easily steals her scenes as an impish housemaid. And as Flora’s London pal, Mrs. Smiling, Joanna Lumley is a posh delight.
For some, the depictions of country folk in Cold Comfort Farm is demeaning and condescending – and there is some of that. But because there a sheen of irony and satire, the offense doesn’t sting as much as it would if the story was meant to take at face value. These characters are caricatures but Gibbons’ intent was to spoof the kinds of country stock characters she found insufferable in the romantic novels she read. When one keeps that in mind, then Cold Comfort Farm is a great diversion.