Critics' Corner

Desson Howe - Weekend section, "Get your feet muddy in this pit of despair and you'll never want to leave."

Hal Hinson - Style section, "A radical and most welcome departure from polite, stodgy British aristocracy movies."

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'Cold Comfort Farm'

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Flora Poste, a society girl who has recently lost her mother and her lifestyle, opts to live with her dour cousin, Judith Starkadder, who lives with her family at Cold Comfort Farm in rural Sussex. For Flora, an aspiring writer who intends to learn about "real life," this place sounds very promising. Also, she's curious about a mysterious event that apparently occurred between her late father and the Starkadders, causing the family to feel it owes Flora an enormous moral debt.
-- Desson Howe
Rated PG

Director: John Schlesinger
Cast: Joanna Lumley; Kate Beckinsale; Eileen Atkins; Rufus Sewell; Ian McKellen

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'Cold Comfort': Warmly Funny

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 24, 1996

It's hard to imagine that life on a dismal, depressing farm in 1930s England could be hilarious. But in "Cold Comfort Farm," where the men are morose, the women are sullen and the local pub is called The Condemn'd Man, misery was never this funny. Get your feet muddy in this pit of despair and you'll never want to leave.

The movie, which director John Schlesinger made originally for BBC/Thames Television, regales us with the travails of one Flora Poste (Kate Beckinsale), a society girl who has recently lost her mother and-sigh-her rent-free lifestyle. The orphaned Flora must now consider free housing options as she sifts through letters of condolence from relatives.

She opts for an invitation from her dour cousin, Judith Starkadder (Eileen Atkins), who lives with her family at Cold Comfort Farm in rural Sussex. For Flora, an aspiring writer who intends to learn about "real life," this place sounds very promising. Also, she's curious about a mysterious event that apparently occurred between Robert Poste (her late father) and the Starkadders, causing the family to feel it owes Flora an enormous moral debt.

The orderly, independent Flora enters a household where gloominess is next to godliness, and where civilization, free-thinking and hygiene are frowned upon. To Flora's request that her dust-laden bedroom drapes be washed, for instance, Judith Starkadder icily replies, "It's been years since such trifles broke across the web of my solitude."

Gradually, Flora gets to know the sulky Starkadders, including Judith's stern preacher-husband, Amos (Sir Ian McKellen), who likes to terrify his congregation with dire tales of hell; and his sons Seth (Rufus Sewell), a cocky ladies man who dreams of Hollywood, and Reuben (Ivan Kaye), a quiet, powerful farmhand.

Much of the unfriendly atmosphere, she learns, comes from Ada Doom (Sheila Burrell), the reclusive, domineering matriarch who rules the farm with an iron hand yet never leaves her bedroom. As far as Flora's concerned, everyone's being awfully obstinate or silly. Ada Doom just needs to get out more. Once the old lady's liberated, Flora reasons, the rest will follow.

Thanks to Schlesinger's exacting direction and Malcolm Bradbury's witty, restrained script, these characters are kept more amusing than horribly pitiable. The king of them all is McKellen, whose titular role in "Richard III" doesn't hold a candle to his delicious performance as a prophetic voice of doom. Snarling from the pulpit of the so-called Church of the Quivering Brethren, he preaches fire and brimstone to a congregation that literally trembles at his words.

"Yea, miserable quivering worms! Are you here again, then?" he says, starting a new sermon. The heads in the pews immediately begin vibrating.

But if Amos promises damnation, Flora delivers. The tension of Cold Comfort Farm is amusingly offset by her undaunted, take-charge attitude toward everyone. When the Starkadders insist on referring to Flora as "Robert Poste's child," as though she represents nothing but moral obligation, the newcomer refuses to accept the label.

"Miss Poste," she says, setting a farm servant straight, "or Miss Flora, if you want to be completely feudal."

COLD COMFORT FARM (PG) Contains nothing really objectionable, except discussion of birth control and people eating English food.

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Heart-warming 'Cold Comfort'

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 24, 1996

John Schlesinger's "Cold Comfort Farm" is a radical (and most welcome) departure from the polite, stodgy tales of the British aristocracy we're used to seeing at the movies. Based on the 1932 novel by Stella Gibbons, this delectable comedy of bad manners concentrates on the eccentric Starkadder family. The Starkadders live on their farm in Sussex, a place where no one seems to have heard of teatime and almost no one is well mannered, well dressed or, for that matter, clean.

The Starkadders aren't just slovenly, they're a bit cracked, too. For starters, Aunt Ada Doom (Sheila Burrell), the aged family matriarch, saw "something nasty in the woodshed" when she was a child and has barely left her room since. Judith (Eileen Atkins) reads tarot cards and maintains a shrine to her son Seth (Rufus Sewell), whose mission, it seems, is to sleep with every young woman in the area. His sister, Elfine (Maria Miles), spends her days frolicking over hill and dale as if she were a deranged wood nymph; she also talks to the wind.

The farm is run by Judith's husband, Amos (Ian McKellen), who has a sideline as a minister with the Church of the Quivering Brethren. Why quivering? Because Amos scares the daylights out of his listeners with his graphic descriptions of what it's like to feel "the great crimson lickin' flames of hellfire." What a family I am cursed with, Amos says, looking down the long dinner table at his brood. And when she first arrives at the Starkadder farm, Flora (Kate Beckinsale) must think she has been cursed as well.

Having just finished school and looking for ways to supplement her meager yearly income, Flora doesn't want to do anything as squalid as work. Instead, she wants to write. Claiming that she has a lot in common with Jane Austen, Flora says she wants to write a novel as "good as `Persuasion.' " To collect the material she needs, she innocently accepts cousin Judith's invitation to stay at Cold Comfort Farm.

Of course, Flora has no idea what she is getting into. Soon after her arrival, she decides to shelve her book and focus on the instruction of her barbaric relatives in the subtle art of being British. Immediately, she launches into a program to reform their habits, clean up the place, organize its finances and restore Cold Comfort to its former glory. But, as she discovers, some practices die hard. When, for example, Flora buys a brush to replace the stick that Adam (Freddie Jones) uses to scrape the dishes after dinner, the dimwitted farmhand thinks it's too beautiful to drag through the dirty dishwater and, instead, hangs it on the wall for decoration.

The contrast that Schlesinger and screenwriter Malcolm Bradbury set up here is between Flora's proper English manners and the Starkadder clan's complete disregard for them. The filmmakers have done a beautiful job of preserving the satirical snap of Gibbons's original. But the real joy of "Cold Comfort Farm" is watching these actors play so freely and exuberantly off each other. McKellen, who has lowered his voice a full octave, is particularly dazzling as Amos-especially when he is thundering out his sermon in church. Stephen Fry contributes a riotous turn as a writer who attempts to seduce Flora with torrents of hot, Lawrentian prose. And Joanna Lumley (from "Absolutely Fabulous") is wickedly snobbish as Flora's sophisticated friend, Mrs. Smiling.

It's Beckinsale's combination of sophistication and spoiled brattiness that holds the picture together, though. Her Flora doesn't seem to know that she's being pushy and rude. Beckinsale still looks like a kid, but she's formidable, and as Flora, she has the other characters in the film eating out of her hand in no time. After a couple of successful stabs at matchmaking, and a coat of paint on the main house, she decides her work is done. As one character puts it, she has lifted the doom from Cold Comfort Farm. And "Cold Comfort Farm" does much the same for us.

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