Schlesinger ought to be more at home with English material, and Cold Comfort Farm (based on the 1932 novel of the same name by Stella Gibbons; neither book nor writer are widely known in this country) is nothing if not English. But while Gibbons is working the same fashionable London neighborhoods of the 1930s as Evelyn Waugh, her characters, unlike his, are too broadly drawn to retain their sharp edges -- and their comedy.
Waugh practiced the art of subtle exaggeration on already florid British eccentricity; he knew that a judicious tweak here and there could turn a real-life buffoon into a grotesquely comic monster, like the fabulously pompous Lord Copper of Scoop. Gibbons' characters, on the other hand, are all one-dimensional, and while Schlesinger brings an irrepressible glee to photographing them, he can't deepen their flatness, nor ease the claustrophobia of the story's inside-jokiness. The book's real target isn't English rural life, but romantic portrayals of it by such writers as D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy. That's one layer too many for Schlesinger and screenwriter Malcolm Bradbury to deal with.
The film's most effective scenes are set in London's swank Belgrave Square, where a young woman of literary ambitions, Flora Poste (Kate Beckinsale), finds herself abruptly orphaned and short of means. With her creamy skin and creamily glib manner, she's a perfect Bright Young Thing who regards her parents' accidental deaths not as an occasion for grief but as a chance to open her life up a bit. Since she aspires to be a latter-day Jane Austen ("Neither of us could endure mess"), she proposes to gather literary material by caroming as a mournful waif among her far-flung relatives.
Off go letters of inquiry. The replies are generally not encouraging, except for a missive from a distant branch of the family, the Starkadders, who live at the ominously named Cold Comfort Farm in Sussex.
"Child, my man once did your father a great wrong," writes Judith Starkadder (Eileen Atkins). "If you come here I'll do my best to atone."
The aura of her note is distinctly bizarre, and Flora's guardian, Mary Smiling (Joanna Lumley, returning to a more typical role after her drag-queenish turn in AbFab), has her doubts. But Flora's made up her mind to ride the train down to the country, and off she goes.
The farm itself looks like a dilapidated version of Hogg's spread in Babe -- like a fairy tale gone to seed. Weeds everywhere; soot stains on the bricks. The Starkadders are a surly bunch who speak an incomprehensibly bumpkinish dialect. To the lot of them -- but particularly to Judith -- Flora isn't Flora but "Robert Poste's child": She is a living reminder of the mysterious debt they owe, an alien inconvenience to be bitterly endured.
It's one of the movie's running jokes (all of which go stale) to avoid saying exactly what wrong was done to Robert Poste. Another overobvious gag is the menacing mantra obsessively chanted by the attic-dwelling Ada Doom (Sheila Burrell): "I saw something nasty in the woodshed." Or: "There have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm."
If there have been, it's because the old battle ax has so cowed everyone that no one dares leave. Yet everyone wants to. Randy young Seth (Rufus Sewell) passes the time by bonking girls in the haystack, but he dreams of being a Hollywood movie star. And Amos (Ian McKellen) would like to take his evangelical ministry on the road in a Ford van, instead of preaching hell and brimstone to the same locals week after week.
City-slick Flora sympathizes with these wider ambitions, and she does not accept the stifling decrees handed down by the old witch from her airless redoubt at the top of the staircase. Flora is young and urbane, a charming upsetter of settled ways, and soon she's working the farm like a ward politician, drawing out people's stories and helping lay new plans.
If only Cold Comfort Farm were funnier. McKellen takes his small role over the top, and Stephen Fry is delicious as the plump, dapper Mybug, a failed local writer who takes a fancy to Flora. But much of the movie is a search for an edge that never turns up. Atkins, in particular, is wasted in a bossy, unsmiling -- and unlikable -- role. Too much of the humor is from the Benny Hill school. A brilliant girl like Flora needs foils, rivals, equals -- not a passel of English hoedaddies who are far too intimidated by her to strike sparks of comic resistance. There's no one for her to be funny and witty with: She's all alone tending the rubes, like some kind of Red Cross nurse.
Only old Ada Doom holds the possibility of being a real rival to Flora, or resisting the girl's efforts at modernization and liberation. They represent different, and irreconcilable, worlds, and their confrontation ought to drive the whole picture. But it doesn't, really, and when they meet near the end, it's a moment of thundering anticlimax.
Schlesinger's Cold Comfort Farm is unlikely to do much for Stella Gibbons' obscurity in this country -- an obscurity that, on this evidence, seems to be entirely earned. It won't do much for Schlesinger's reputation, either. Filming novels is always dicey business; filming bad novels can pay off big, but filming a clumsy satire is reckless -- a blunder easily avoided. Cold comfort for Schlesinger.
Cold Comfort Farm opens Friday, May 24, at the Kabuki, 1881 Post at Fillmore,