Cast:Eileen Atkins, Kate Beckinsale, Stephen Fry, Ian McKellen, Rufus Sewell, Rupert Penry-Jones, Maria Miles
Our rating: 3 out of 5
reviewed by Charity Bishop
I remember seeing this film years ago but it was only recently that I chose to give it a re-watch. Best recommended to fans of the dark comedy genre, Cold Comfort Farm revolves around the well-meaning "meddling" of young Flora (Beckinsale). Recently orphaned by the tragic death of her parents and hoping to find somewhere she can "be of use," Flora writes pitious letters to all her country relatives. Several respond and all of them are tiresome invitations, but one is a little more intriguing than the rest. It comes from Judith Starkadder (Atkins) and contains mysteriousness of such an intriguing sort that Flora promptly packs her bags, takes her hundred pounds a year, and moves into a disreputable old farmhouse full of brazen eccentrics.
Amos Starkadder (McKellen) is a farmer by day and fire and brimstone preacher on weekends. He gives such damning sermons that Flora cannot sit through them and must escape. Judith is appropriately grim and never ceases foretelling dark events. Elfine (Miles) is a want-to-be poet secretly in love with the neighboring aristocrat (Penry Jones) but promised in marriage to the heigine-challenged Urk (Jeremy Peters). Rueben (Ivan Kaye) just wants the farm and isn't terribly thrilled with having to share with his philandering brother Seth (Sewell). And then there is the creepy old aunt in the attic who never comes out of her room and is constantly going on about what she saw in the woodshed when she was a child -- something that she cannot remember but that keeps the entire family bound to her forever for fear of upsetting her.
Deciding that she will "fix" the farm, Flora starts intervening, planting ideas in people's heads, and bringing about change, hoping that once she is finished all will be well and she can run off to marry the young man who follows her about like a lovesick puppy. The result is an entertaining and sarcastic satire on country life, with numerous moments of brilliance but a few problems. The rating seems a bit light, for while most of the content is minimal (there is a use of GD in a moment of heated passion) it still bears mentioning that in the first ten or so minutes, our introduction to Seth is in the hayloft with a young miss from the vicarage. We overhear sexual moaning before they are interrupted and come up into camera sight fastening their knickers. There is some innuendo, and a local writer (Fry) implies to Flora that he is rather susceptible to "sex" (he wants to go on a picnic with her, clearly hoping it will turn into a romantic tryst). Being a modern thinker, Flora lectures a milk maid on the importance of family planning and contraceptives. There is a reference to condoms and how pleased she is in a letter later to have had some influence in preventing further pregnancies. Judith constantly bemoans Seth being a "libertine," and Urk is always attempting to spy on Elfine through windows.
There is a slight religious slant played for laughs, with the presence of Amos and his determination to win souls over by preaching about the flaming inferno that awaits everyone in hell. Eventually, he makes a decision to go off and abandon his family for the sake of his faith -- something Flora encourages him in. It's tongue in cheek but doesn't seem too intent on insulting believers. Unusually, Judith is the opposite of him and is twice shown consulting tarot cards. She does not read them aloud but is astonished and pleased when one of them turns up bidding good fortune is about to descend upon them. None of the movie is serious and that is perhaps what makes it so funny. Some of it is blatant sarcasm but there is also a good sense of comedic timing. It's entertaining without demanding too much mental concentration, but if you are looking for a film with "resolutions" in the second half, you may be disappointed. We never do find out what Granny saw in the woodshed, or about the reason Judith thought she owed Flora something. But what we do get to see is Flora put the family to rights and bring sunshine back to the gloomy farm. It has a happy ending for everyone and so the audience is more than satisfied in spite of some of the silliness of it. Plus, there is the added benefit of seeing such a fantastic cast in one place.
I do wish they had left out the scene in the hayloft, because otherwise it is a charming visit to Cold Comfort Farm.