The Nineties seem to have been a bit of a golden decade for book-to-film adaptations. Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Shakespeare all got the star treatment in this decade. Perhaps a little less known, but nonetheless well-loved, is the 1995 adaptation of Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm, which I read a little while ago. It stars Kate Beckinsdale as Flora Poste, the nosy, recently orphaned young woman who goes to live with her strange family at Cold Comfort Farm, and turn their lives upside down.
Interestingly enough, Beckinsdale went on to play Austen’s Emma in the 1996 adaptation, one year after Cold Comfort Farm was released. Whether she got this role based on her role as Flora Poste, the twentieth century’s Emma Woodhouse, or whether she was filming both films simultaneously (or one after the other?), it’s an interesting crossover. And her character in this movie is indeed similar to Emma Woodhouse, although Beckinsdale plays Emma with a bit more of a twinkle, a lightness which is not present in her portrayal of Flora, which is a little more understated.
The film does an excellent job of evoking the miserable state that Cold Comfort Farm is in when Flora first arrives there. It is dark, dirty, and poky. It’s the sort of place that might be featured on an episode of Restoration Home. Although, to be frank, the makers of that particular show would probably hang up their windcheaters in disgust and give up Cold Comfort Farm as a lost cause.
Thank goodness Flora Poste doesn’t. Beckinsdale’s Flora is understated but efficient, and we see her very quickly whip the entire family into shape. While some of the characters are as loathsome on film as they are in the book (Amos, the fanatical preacher, is so unlikeable in both book and film that he must eventually be banished to America, where presumably his brand of hellfire-and-damnation will look positively mild next to the excesses of some American preachers). Other characters are softened a little, made to be a little more likeable (or more comic).
One of these is Mr Mybug, played by the incomparable Stephen Fry. Fry plays him as a loveable fool, emphasising the ridiculous characteristics of Gibbons’ original, who was indeed a fool, but who also had a hard, misogynistic centre which made him absolutely infuriating to read about. Don’t believe me? Read his speech in the book about how the Brontë sisters couldn’t possibly have written Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. It’s ludicrous, the sort of tripe that makes students of literature (and readers in general) scoff – but it’s also almost disturbing in its pig-headedness.
Perhaps in an effort to make Flora a bit easier to relate to, the filmmakers also took Flora’s throwaway comments about ‘writing a book’ when she was fifty or sixty and gave the character a fully-fledged ambition to become a writer. We see her struggling with paragraphs and sentences, never satisfied with her work. Sure, it is nice to see Flora with some long-term goals (she lacks them in the book), but it’s a moot point since she seems to give it up anyway when she hops aboard the aeroplane at the end of the film. As in the novel, where she’s going isn’t so important as what she’s done for the people she’s left behind.
And I’m sorry, but how good is the tagline of this film? “She discovered a new branch of her family tree… the one with all the nuts.” Sheer gold. I’m helpless in the face of a good pun (or, indeed, a bad pun). My final verdict? If you struggled with the book a little, as I did, then this film might just be the right fit for you.
Rating: 4.5 Stars