It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
British fiction is packed with stories of forlorn orphans being shipped off to live with stone-hearted relatives. “Cold Comfort Farm” satirizes those stories. This time, the dreadful relatives find their lives in an uproar; they get more than they expect and better than they deserve. The movie, based on the famous comic novel by Stella Gibbons, is dour, eccentric and very funny, and depends on the British gift for treating madness as good common sense.
As it opens, poor Flora Poste (Kate Beckinsale) has lost her parents, and been cast into the cruel world with only 100 pounds a year (“hardly enough to keep you in stockings and furs,” a rich friend observes). She writes to her relatives for a place to live and receives unencouraging replies (one uncle promises “plenty of hard life, surrounded by ruin on all sides”). Finally she decides to accept an invitation to live with the Starkadders, whose Cold Comfort Farm is well-named, an oasis of despair in a slough of despond.
The Starkadders are ruled by an invisible matriarch named Ada Doom (Sheila Burrell), who keeps to her room while shrieking that once, years ago, she “saw something nasty in the woodshed.” Her daughter Judith (Eileen Atkins) tries to hold hearth and home together with the aid of two seldom-bathed sons, Seth (Rufus Sewell) and Reuben (Ivan Kaye). Among the other inhabitants of the cheerless, muddy place are Judith's brother Amos (Ian McKellen), a ferocious preacher, and young Elfine (Maria Miles), who gambols in the wood like a demented Isadora Duncan.
If this were a story by Dickens, poor Flora would immediately begin working her fingers to the bone, pausing only to wipe away a tear while remembering better times. But Flora is a modern heroine, and calmly sets about upsetting all the traditions of Cold Comfort Farm and refurbishing the lives of its inhabitants. By the time Seth has been cleaned up and put in a tuxedo, he is ready to star in the movies, and obviously all the preacher requires is a Ford van, so that he can drive 'round to the county fairs and stop driving his family crazy.