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Film review: Cold Comfort Farm

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Audiences burned out by special effects-laden but shallow summer blockbusters can take comfort in "Cold Comfort Farm," a slyly comical adaptation of the Stella Gibbons novel.

Though the film was actually shot and completed for the British Broadcasting Company two years ago, its U.S. release couldn't have been better timed. It stands out as a stark contrast to the prevailing strategy in many of this summer's movies - "Cold Comfort Farm" actually revels in the fact that it has so many memorable characters and such good performances.

One of the most beloved English novels of the 20th century, "Cold Comfort Farm" tells the story of Flora Poste (Kate Beckinsale), an aspiring novelist who is suddenly orphaned. Given her choice of relatives to stay with, Flora opts to go to Cold Comfort, a creepy, cursed farmhouse outside Sussex that she hopes will give her ample writing material.

Of course, Cold Comfort's inhabitants test even Flora's renowned abilities to "tidy things up."

There's Judith Starkadder (Eileen Atkins), her gloomy, fortune-telling aunt, who feels obliged to take care of Flora because of an undisclosed, perceived debt. There's Amos Starkadder (Ian McKellen), a fire-and-brimstone preacher caught up in the fatalistic side of his sermons. And then there's the farm's possessive matriarch, Ada Doom (Sheila Burrell), who once saw "something nasty in the woodshed" and won't leave her room. She also won't let any of the family leave the farm.

While the premise sounds more like a Charles Dickens tragedy than a comedy, it becomes a delight in such capable hands.

Director John Schlesinger really needed a winner to make the movie-going public forget the awful "Eye for an Eye," so his choice of material was wise this time. In "Cold Comfort Farm," which was actually shot before "Eye for an Eye," he keeps things moving at a brisk - but never buffoonish - pace. Also, Schlesinger wisely reels in his cast's performances before they get too outlandish.

That allows all of the performers to chew the ample scenery, especially McKellen, whose nearly unintelligible rants are hilarious, and Stephen Fry, who almost steals the film as a writer obsessed with proving that a Bronte brother wrote "Wuthering Heights." He also ineptly attempts to woo Flora.

Playing straight-man to much of the silliness going on, Beckinsale ("Much Ado About Nothing") is quite good as well.

Much of the film's success can also be attributed to novelist Malcolm Bradbury's sharp screenplay. Witty jokes fly wildly out of character's mouth, and if you miss one, odds are that another will follow seconds later.

It helps that Bradbury had such good source material to begin with. The novel and the film take their shots at both snooty aristocracy and the common people, while also making both endearing.

Audiences should not expect the film to be another "Four Weddings and a Funeral," though. They may have to be patient and attentive to catch many of the best jokes, as well as muddle through the thick accents of some of the characters.

The only downside is Robert Lockhart's irritatingly brazen score, which would have been better suited to a slapstick comedy than to a satire.

"Cold Comfort Farm" is rated PG for a discreet sexual encounter and one profanity.