Working from a droll screenplay by novelist Malcolm Bradbury, Schlesinger begins by introducing us to the startlingly self-confident Flora Poste (Kate Beckinsale), a bright young Londoner who finds herself in financial straits after the death of her parents. "I've only got a hundred pounds a year," she tells her closest friend, Mrs. Smiling (Joanna Lumley), "and I can't play bridge." These are serious disadvantages for an unattached woman in her 1930s smart set.
But Flora is not the sort of person to waste time bemoaning her lot. She needs a place to live and, perhaps more important, some experiences to transform into art. She fancies herself a potential novelist, and says that, by the time she turns 50, "I want to write a novel as good as Persuasion, only in a modern setting." So she convinces herself that the very best place to gather experience would be in rural Sussex, where she could live with distant cousins, the Starkadders, in their decrepit manor house at the aptly named Cold Comfort Farm.
The Starkadder clan turns out to be only slightly less bizarre than the Addams Family, and just marginally more sophisticated than the folks who once resided on Tobacco Road. Ada Doom (Sheila Burrell), the ancient matriarch, spends most of her time in an upstairs room, and says very little other than an oft-repeated refrain: "I saw something nasty in the woodshed." Maybe she did, but that was 69 years ago. By this point, she cannot quite bring herself to say what happened, if indeed anything actually did happen. But it's enough to make her a recluse in her own home.
Things aren't much cheerier downstairs. Judith (Eileen Atkins), Ada's daughter-in-law, slogs through a deep blue funk of gloomy trepidation. Amos Starkadder (Ian McKellen), her dour husband, is a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher who sets his congregation a'quivering with his graphic descriptions of eternal damnation. (He addresses his flock as "Ye miserable crawling worms!") They have two sons -- the randy Seth (Rufus Sewell), who views each woman he meets as a potential Lady Chatterley in need of sexual awakening, and Reuben (Ivan Kaye), a thick-witted and deeply suspicious fellow who worries that Flora has designs on the family farm. The Starkadders also have a daughter, Elfine (Maria Miles), a would-be poet who desperately wants to be known as an ethereal sprite. Even more desperately, she pines for Dick Hawk-Monitor (Rupert Penry-Jones), a member of the local landed gentry.
Meanwhile, the crusty old Adam (Freddie Jones) washes the dishes, though not very well, and tends the sheep while Mrs. Beetle (Miriam Margolyes) cooks and prattles. Like everyone else at Cold Comfort Farm, they respond to Flora with equal measures of deference, suspicion and befuddlement.
Flora may very well want to write her version of Persuasion, but it doesn't take long before she's behaving like the lead character in another Jane Austen novel: Emma. Everywhere she looks at Cold Comfort Farm, she sees another opportunity to straighten out someone's life. And while she's at it, she might as well straighten out the farm itself. "Nature's all very well in her place," she insists, "but she mustn't be allowed to make things untidy."
Beckinsale plays Flora with such charm, grace and indefatigable confidence that her character's goodheartedness is never obscured by her obsessive single-mindedness. She is first among equals in an excellent ensemble cast. And if some (McKellen and Atkins, for example) are a bit more equal than others, well, that also is part of the fun.
Throughout Cold Comfort Farm, there is much talk of dark secrets and unbridled passions. In fact, there is much talk, period, and a large chunk of it is too heavily accented for easy comprehension by U.S. audiences. Surprisingly, however, this isn't the liability it may seem. It is easy enough to understand what's going on, and how Flora is making it happen, without being altogether sure what other people are saying about it. And when you can understand every word, those words are, more often than not, grandly amusing.
Some of the biggest laughs are generated by Mybug (Stephen Fry), a neighbor whose literary pretensions and romantic advances are equally off-putting to Flora. Mybug sounds like the very model of a Lawrencian wannabe as he announces he has returned from a walk "soaked in nature's fecund blessing." Flora is conspicuously unimpressed. "He's so obnoxious," she complains to a much more suitable suitor. "I haven't the heart to tell him that's why I won't let him kiss me. He thinks I'm inhibited." As if.
Cold Comfort Farm. Directed by John Schlesinger. With Kate Beckinsale. Rated PG-13. 105 minutes.