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Stark Raving Adders

Voices of Reason: Kate Beckinsale (left) and Joanna Lumley attempt to save the surly Starkadders in "Cold Comfort Farm."

'Cold Comfort Farm' takes aim at ripe literary pretensions past--and all too present

By Richard von Busack

THERE ARE a few quibbles to be made with John Schlesinger's faithful adaptation of Stella Gibbons' merciless 1932 literary satire Cold Comfort Farm. Robert Lockhart's twinkly soundtrack, for example, is there to convince us that the movie is all meant in fun. Elfine Starkadder, who the book tells us is a once-in-a-century stunner, is played by Maria Miles, who is merely good-looking.

If only the artistic themes Stella Gibbons had skewered occurred once in a century as well, but they are as healthy as they were in 1936--or healthier. In her novel, Gibbons took aim at some specific targets--not D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy per se, and certainly not William Faulkner, but the since-forgotten writers who were influenced by them. She was specifically going after all of those countless reams of writing described by Vladimir Nabokov as taking place in "gaunt and arid surroundings ... set forth in short, strong, 'realistic' sentences--'He acts crazy. We all act crazy, I guess. I guess God acts crazy.' "

Especially timely is the way Cold Comfort Farm lampoons childhood trauma as an excuse for manipulation and misbehavior. Here, on screen at last, is elderly Aunt Ada Doom (Sheila Burrell), empress of the repressed-memory sufferers, a basket case ever since, as a little girl, "I saw something nasty in the woodshed!" The peculiarly ringing phrase--one has heard it in real-life variations so many, many times--is Gibbons' contribution to the Oxford Book of Quotations.

By losing her parents, Jane Austen­loving Flora Poste (Kate Beckinsale) has gained a meager annuity, which she decides to stretch by imposing herself on relatives. The best of a bad lot of potential imposees are her cousins, the Starkadders of gloomy Cold Comfort Farm in Howling, Sussex. Flora spends a season with this unforgettable nest of alternately terse and fancy-talking tillers of the soil.

Uncle Amos, lay preacher of the Quivering Brethren, devotes his Sundays to scaring his sinning flock into Parkinsonian tremors. Ian McKellen's Amos flashes a false smile as he lets his congregation know the bad news: There will be no butter waiting for them in Hell. The Byronic, tortured Cousin Seth (Rufus Sewell) knows what blood-suckers women are, ever since he learned it at the movies. The hired hand, the decrepit rural fossil Adam Lambsbreath (Freddie Jones), washes the dishes with a twig, in the time-honored fashion of his people, scoffing at the newfangled notion of a dish mop.

As a modern, brittle Londoner with no patience for naturalism, Flora feels that all the denizens really need to lift the ancestral curse is a bath and a psychiatrist. Aiding Flora's efforts to bring daylight into the cursed recesses of the Starkadders' lives are Joanna Lumley as Mrs. Smiling, Flora's civilized chum, and a variety of upper-class twits ("I say, this is all very Gothic, isn't it?," marvels one), including Steven Fry as a pesky, sweaty littérateur working on the ultimate revisionist history of the Brontës.

GIBBONS' SATIRE seems to be deathless. She was not just a bright writer blowing her nose on the last stage of romanticism; she was also a feminist who saw through the popular talk of the Life Force and the Call of the Blood (satirized here by the pregnant symbolism of the blooming sukebind) as a high-flown method of bamboozling women into the prone position.

Schlesinger, after grim hack work like Pacific Heights, bounces back with this rich and faithful framing. His version of the novel is a picturesque comedy, kept pastel and sunny and, at the end, after the notorious (if fictional) sukebind comes into bloom, flowery.

Likewise, the movie could have just as easily made it in black-and-white in Tulare with a soundtrack by American Music Club and Nebraska-era Bruce Springsteen. Oh, Lord, all those tedious musicians trying to translate their drug problems into lyrics about failed farms and Pentecostal wrath! You'll never be able to hear some sad-core country-folk again without thinking of the murmured phrase, "There have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm."

Cold Comfort Farm (PG; 95 min.), directed by John Schlesinger, written by Malcolm Bradbury, based on the novel by Stella Gibbons and starring Joanna Lumley, Kate Beckinsale and Ian McKellen.

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From the May 30-June 5, 1996 issue of Metro

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