“COLD COMFORT FARM” (1995) Review

“COLD COMFORT FARM” (1995) Review

Years ago . . . and I do mean a lot of years, I came across a movie inside a video rental store called “COLD COMFORT FARM”. I had never heard of it before that day. But . . . being a period drama fan and discovering that the movie was a comedy set in the 1930s, I decided to give it a try. And I never looked back. 

I managed to rent “COLD COMFORT FARM” several times before the use of VHS recorders/players went out of style. Then I spent several years trying to find a copy of the movie on DVD. It was not until recently that I finally came across a copy of “COLD COMFORT FARM” again, despite the fact that the movie had been released on DVD for several years.

Based upon Stella Gibson’s 1932 novel and directed by John Schlesinger, “COLD COMFORT FARM” told the story of a young upper-class, yet impoverished woman named Flora Poste, who decided to become a writer following the deaths of her parents. Flora decided that due to her impoverished state, she needed to find relatives to stay with, while embarking upon her first novel. Her London relatives seemed to have no interest in offering Flora a place to live, so she wrote letters to some of her rural relatives. After receiving a few unsuitable responses, Flora became intrigued by a letter from a cousin named Judith Starkadder, Flora decided to stay for a while at the Starkadders’ rundown farm. The Starkadders and their servants proved to be an odd bunch that consisted of rustic, uncouth, slatternly and eccentric people that include:

*Aunt Ada Doom – the family’s elderly and paranoid matriarch and owner of the farm, who rarely set foot outside her bedroom, but controlled the family with an iron fist.

*Judith Doom Starkadder – Ada’s depressing daughter, who possessed a penchant for gloomy predictions and a possessive regard for her younger son Seth.

*Amos Starkadder – Judith’s husband, a religious fanatic and local minister with a penchant for hellfire and damnation sermon.

*Seth Starkadder – Amos and Judith’s sexy younger son, a womanizer and movie fanatic

*Reuben Starkadder – Amos and Judith

Deciding that the only to live, while researching for her first novel, Flora decides that the only way for her to live whilst researching her writing is to stay with relatives. Her city-based relatives show no interest, so she sends letters to her country relatives. There are a few responses, most of them unsuitable, but one is intriguing. Flora decides to stay for a while with the Starkadder family on their rundown farm. The Starkadders are an assortment of rustic, uncouth, and truly eccentric characters, each of whom has a hurdle (be it physical, emotional, or spiritual) to overcome before reaching his or her potential. Flora quickly realises that as a modern twentieth-century woman, she can resolve these situations once she has assessed and solved each character’s problems.

Following my recent viewing of “COLD COMFORT FARM”, I found myself wondering if there were any aspects of the film that I did not like or found baffling. Well, I had a few questions regarding Aunt Ada Doom and her daughter, Judith Doom Starkadder. Had the Doom family been members of the local gentry? I found it hard to connect the high-born and well-bred Flora Poste to the obviously non-sophisticated Aunt Ada Doom and Judith Starkadder. I have never read Gibson’s novel, but I do wish the movie had been a bit clearer on the blood connection between Flora and the Starkadder women. Another problem I had with the film was the romance between Elfine Starkadder and the blue-blooded Dick Hawk-Monitor. The latter must have been indulged by his parents as a boy. I find it hard to believe that the Hawk-Monitor family, especially Mrs. Hawk-Monitor, did not raise a bigger fuss over young Dick’s choice for his future wife. Instead, the cinematic Mrs. Hawk-Monitor merely expressed surprise, dismay and eventual resignation over the idea of Elfine as her future daughter-in-law.

Otherwise, “COLD COMFORT FARM” is an engaging and delightful film that never ceases to entertain me every time I watch it. The movie also featured some rather sharp humor that always leaves me in stitches. Before my recent viewing of “COLD COMFORT FARM”, I learned that its literary source, Stella Gibson’s 1932 novel, was basically a parody of the “loam and lovechild” literary genre aka “pessimistic ruralism” that were popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – including the novels of Thomas Hardy and Mary Webb. It is this aspect of the movie that made it very entertaining and hilarious to me. In fact, the Starkadder family and their servants used dialogue that is considered a parody of Sussex and West Country rural accents. Words like “mollocking” or “sukebind”(look them up yourselves, for I have not the foggiest idea what they mean) kept popping out of their mouths, causing me to raise and eyebrow or two. And then there is the character of Mr. Meyerburg (aka “Mr. Mybug”), a local writer who pursued Flora and seemed to be obsessed with sex. It is believed that his character was used to parody intellectuals like the Freudians and admirers of author D. H. Lawrence.

On one level, the movie’s narrative made it clear that Flora had remained at Cold Comfort Farm to drag the Starkadders into the early 20th century. But in doing so, Gibbons and screenwriter Malcolm Bradbury had more or less transformed Flora into a trickster figure. You know . . . another Mary Poppins, Loki, Jack Sparrow, Bagger Vance or Dolly Levi. Despite Flora’s subtle and cool personality, she seemed to have the strongest similarity with the latter. Like Dolly and unlike the others, Flora’s tale concluded with a “happily ever after” with the man she loved.

What can I say about the production quality for “COLD COMFORT FARM”? I thought it was pretty solid. Production designer Malcolm Thornton did a good job in re-creating early 1930s Sussex and London. I say good, because if I may be perfectly honest, his designs did not exactly blow my mind. I can say the same about Jim Holloway’s art designs and Chris Seager’s photography. Amy Roberts’ costume designs seemed to perfectly reflect the film’s setting and the characters’ personalities, class, and financial situation. However, I was not that impressed by the hairstyles for the women. Kate Beckinsale’s hair seemed to be a cross of a late 1920s bob and . . . well, something. Joanna Lumley’s shingled bob definitely looked as if it came straight from the mid-to-late 1920s. Aside from the hairstyles, which I admit is a lame complaint, I do not have any real problems with the production values for “COLD COMFORT FARM”.

On the other hand, I found the performances from the cast well done. There were solid performances from the likes of Maria Miles as a charming Elfine Starkadder, Christopher Bowen as Charles Fairford (Flora’s admirer), Jeremy Peters as Urk, the always wonderful Miriam Margolyes as the Starkadders’ housekeeper Mrs. Beetle, Angela Thorne as Mrs. Hawk-Monitor and a very young Rupert Penry-Jones as Dick Hawk-Monitor (although his pencil-thin moustache was not that flattering). Ivan Kaye gave a charming, yet solid performance as Reuben Starkadder, the only member of the family truly capable of managing the farm. And I found Sheila Burrell’s performance as the family’s controlling matriarch very amusing and spot-on.

But there were performances that I found truly entertaining. Stephen Fry was hilarious as a local writer named Mr. Myburg, a D.L. Lawrence fanatic who seems to fancy Flora. Ian McKellen gave a rather funny performance as Amos Starkadder, Aunt Ada’s son-in-law, who happened to be the farm’s manager. Amos is also a religious fanatic, who also happened to be a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher. The scene featuring his rather fiery sermon is not to be missed. I found Freddie Jones’ portrayal of the Starkadders’ farmhand, Adam Lambsbreath, rather charming, hilarious and rather loopy. Joanna Lumley gave a very sly and entertaining performance as Flora’s close friend, London socialite Mrs. Mary Smiling, who seemed to have formed a hobby of collecting brassières. And there was Rufus Sewell, who gave a titilating performance as the family’s ladies’ man, Seth Starkadder. At times, I found his performance both charming and sexy. And at other times, I found his portrayal of Seth’s overt masculinity rather hilarious . . . especially in scenes in which he resorted to poses to attract Flora’s attention.

For me, one of the two funniest performances came from Eileen Atkins, who portrayed Aunt Ada’s daughter, Judith Starkadder. Atkins was superb as the dour Judith, who possessed a disposition for doom-and-gloom prophecies, calling Flora “Robert Poste’s child”, and harboring a . . . uh, slightly incestuous regard for her younger son Seth. Equally hilarious was Harry Ditson who portrayed a close friend of Flora’s and Hollywood producer, Earl P. Neck. I loved how Ditson conveyed his character’s charm, extroverted personality and wit. In fact, he had at least two of the best lines in the movies. But the one person who truly ruled this movie was Kate Beckinsale, who portrayed the story’s main protagonist, Flora Poste. She must have been at least 22 or 23 years old when she shot this film. Beckinsale did not give the funniest performance in the movie. In fact, she seemed to be serving as everyone else’s straight man. But she was the one who kept this movie together; held her own against the likes Atkins, McKellen, Lumley and Burrell; and still managed to portray Flora Poste as a compelling and charismatic personality.

I might have a few complaints about “COLD COMFORT FARM”. But if I must be honest, they were rather minor to me. As far as I am concerned, “COLD COMFORT FARM” was a charming, fascinating and very funny film . . . even after twenty years or so. It was a worthy adaptation of Stella Gibson’s novel, thanks to Malcolm Bradbury’s screenplay, a superb cast led by a charismatic Kate Beckinsale and excellent direction by screen legend John Schlesinger.

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“MURDER IN MESOPOTAMIA” (2001) Review

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“MURDER IN MESOPOTAMIA” (2001) Review

One can categorize the “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” television movies into two categories. The ones made between 1989 and 2001, featured the supporting characters Captain Arthur Hasting, Miss Lemon (Hercule Poirot), and Chief Inspector Japp. The ones made post-2001 sporadically featured the mystery writer, Adriande Oliver. The very last television movie that featured Poirot’s close friend, Hastings, turned out to be 2001’s “MURDER IN MESOPOTAMIA”

Based upon Agatha Christie’s 1936 novel, “MURDER IN MESOPOTAMIA” told of Hercule Poirot’s investigation into the murder of Louise Leidner, the wife of an American archeologist named Dr. Leidner. The story began with Poirot’s arrival in Iraq, who is there to not only visit his friend Captain Arthur Hastings, but also meet with a Russian countess of a past acquaintance. Hastings, who is having marital problems, is there to visit his nephew Bill Coleman, one of Dr. Leidner’s assistants. Upon his arrival at the dig, Poirot notices the tension between Mrs. Leidner and the other members of her husband’s dig – especially with Richard Carey and Anne Johnson, Dr. Leidner’s longtime colleagues.

Both Poirot and Hastings learn about the series of sightings that have frightening Mrs. Leidner. The latter eventually reveals that she was previously married to a young U.S. State Department diplomat during World War I named Frederick Bosner, who turned out to be a spy for the Germans. Mrs. Leidner had betrayed Bosner to the American government before he was arrested and sentenced to die. But Bosner managed to escape, while he was being transported to prison. Unfortunately, a train accident killed him. Fifteen years passed before Louise eventually married Dr. Leidner. Not long after Poirot learned about the lady’s past, someone killed her with a deadly blow to her head with a blunt instrument.

Many Christie fans claim that the 1989-2001 movies were superior to the later ones, because these movies were faithful to the novels. I have seen nearly every “POIROT” television movie in existence. Trust me, only a small handful of the 1989-2001 movies were faithful. And “MURDER IN MESOPOTAMIA” was not one of them. First of all, Arthur Hastings was not in the 1936 novel. Which meant that Bill Coleman’s was not Hasting’s nephew. Poirot’s assistant in Christie’s novel was Louise Leidner’s personal nurse, Amy Leatheran. In the 2001 movie, she was among the main suspects. There were other changes. Dr. Leidner’s nationality changed from Swedish to American. Several characters from the novel were eliminated.

I only had a few quibbles about “MURDER IN MESOPOTAMIA”. One, I found Clive Exton’s addition of Captain Hastings unnecessary. I realize that the movie aired during the last season that featured Hastings, Chief Inspector Japp and Miss Lemon. But what was the point in including Hastings to the story? His presence merely served as a last touch of nostalgia for many fans of the series and as an impediment to the Amy Leatheran character, whose presence was reduced from Poirot’s assistant to minor supporting character. Two, I wish that the movie’s running time had been longer. The story featured too many supporting characters and one too many subplots. A running time of And if I must be brutally honest, the solution to Louise Leidner’s murder struck me as inconceivable. One has to blame Agatha Christie for this flaw, instead of screenwriter Clive Exton. I could explain how implausible the murderer’s identity was, but to do so would give away the mystery.

But I still enjoyed “MURDER IN MESOPOTAMIA”. Clive Exton did the best he could with a story slightly marred by First of all, I was impressed by the production’s use of Tunisia as a stand-in for 1933-36 Iraq. Rob Hinds and his team did an excellent job in re-creating both the setting and era for the movie. They were ably assisted by Kevin Rowley’s photography, Chris Wimble’s editing and the art direction team – Paul Booth, Nigel Evans and Henry Jaworski. I was especially impressed by Charlotte Holdich’s costume designs that perfectly recaptured both the 1930s decade and the movie’s setting in the Middle East.

David Suchet gave his usual top-notch performance as Hercule Poirot. I am also happy to include that he managed to avoid some of his occasional flashes of hammy acting during Poirot’s revelation scene. Hugh Fraser gave his last on-screen performance as Arthur Hastings (so far). And although I was not thrilled by the addition of the Hastings character in the movie, I cannot deny that Fraser was first rate. Five other performances really impressed me. Ron Berglas was perfectly subtle as the quiet and scholarly Dr. Leidner, who also happened to be in love with his wife. Barbara Barnes wisely kept control of her portrayal of Louise Leidner, a character that could have easily veered into caricature in the hands of a less able actress. I also enjoyed Dinah Stabb’s intelligent portrayal of Anne Johnson, one of Dr. Leidner’s colleagues who happened to be in love with him. Christopher Bowen did an excellent job of keeping audiences in the dark regarding his character’s (Richard Mason) true feelings for Mrs. Leidner. And Georgina Sowerby injected as much energy as possible into the role of Amy Leatharan, a character reduced by Exton’s screenplay.

“MURDER IN MESOPOTAMIA” was marred by a running time I found too short and an implausible solution to its murder mystery. But it possessed enough virtues, including an excellent performance by a cast led by David Suchet, an interesting story and a first-rate production team; for me to consider it a very entertaining movie and one I would not hesitate to watch over again.