Hankies Aweigh

There will always be a Britain; and that means there will always be movies about the pluck and sacrifice, during World War II, of the little people. Not Billy Barty little people -- though surely a few of them must have been involved -- but the simple salt of the earth who kept muddling along while the country got the holy shit bombed out of it by the Nazis.

This latest feature from David Leland -- whose first film, Wish You Were Here (1987), made a star of Emily Lloyd -- is firmly in that honorable tradition, though it cannot hold a candle to John Boorman's wonderful Hope and Glory (1987), the best such film since the 1950s at least. That Boorman is old enough to remember the war, and Leland isn't, may in part account for the difference.

The movie takes its name from the popular designation of the Women's Land Army, an organization whose members volunteered to work on farms after the men went off to war. (The WLA was founded in World War I and wasn't officially disbanded until 1950.) Young urban women being uprooted and sent to the countryside for temporary service during a period of national crisis makes a perfect backdrop for a romantic melodrama. And a romantic melodrama is what Leland provides.

Stella (Catherine McCormack) is a proper, self-possessed young woman of apparently upper-class background; Ag (Rachel Weisz) is a professional virgin, who is saving her virtue for true love; and Prue (Anna Friel) is an aggressive free spirit with a strong and undisguised sex drive. The three find themselves posted at the Lawrence farm in Dorset. All the healthy young men have left to fight the good fight, with the exception of Joe Lawrence (Steven Mackintosh), who, with his aging parents, is struggling to keep the farm going, amid demands from the government that they increase the farm's output.

The Lawrence patriarch (Tom Georgeson) isn't too keen about taking the girls on, but he really has no choice; his wife (Maureen O'Brien) has health problems, and the war isn't helping any.

While Mr. Lawrence eventually comes to accept the young women, his misgivings aren't completely misplaced. No sooner have the girls arrived than each, in her own way, takes a shine to Joe. Indeed, much of the film's first half is like a role-reversed joke: Did you hear the one about the three traveling Land Girls and the farmer's son? (It also bears a resemblance to Belle Epoque, the Oscar-winning Spanish film of a few years back.) But halfway through, the mood grows much soapier, as Stella, who is already engaged to the socially desirable Philip (Paul Bettany), finds herself falling for Joe in a serious way.

While those in search of an undemanding weepie may be satisfied with The Land Girls, it's an easy film to pick nits from. Both in tone and in detail, it trips over itself repeatedly.

Why, for instance, does Leland insist on having a scene in which the bombing of Pearl Harbor is announced? It serves little dramatic purpose, but it immediately tosses the audience out of the film's reality: Jeez, you think, 1941 must have been the hottest damn winter in the history of England, given how lightly everyone has been dressing. (The morning after the announcement, Catherine, in light garb, her breath invisible, takes to plowing the soft, yielding soil of the East Meadow.)

Why, in a hospital scene, is the ward lit like something out of a David Lynch film, even though it's visiting hour? (Throughout, Leland shows an affection for unnecessarily dim lighting.)

More important than these little flaws are some odd choices of tone. While two of the girls comfort the third, whose lover has just been lost at sea, Leland keeps cutting to close-ups of them gently stroking her suds-covered flesh, as though he's about to spring a lesbian subplot on us. It's downright weird and downright distracting.

And how can one defend the moment when Joe goes running across the field, yelling "Stella!"? It's supposed to be one of the emotional high points of the story, but there will be few viewers who can resist giggling at the obvious thought of Marlon Brando and Kim Hunter.

There are other images that evoke unintentional giggles, mostly thanks to the joyous damage the Monty Python troupe wreaked on icons of Brit culture.

By the end, the movie has become a standard-issue tearjerker, awash in nauseatingly noble self-sacrifice and stiff-upper-lip stoicism. The final bit of voice-over -- "There's always hope ... just as there are some things that always remain in the heart" -- sounds like a line cut from Hope Floats for being too sappy.

Now there's a concept to give you the willies.

The Land Girls.
Rated R.
Directed by David Leland. With Catherine McCormack, Steven Mackintosh, Rachel Weisz and Anna Friel.


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