Buying the Farm

There will always be a Britain, and very likely there will always be movies about the pluck and sacrifice demonstrated by the little people during World War II. Not Billy Barty-type little people -- though surely there must have been a few of them involved -- but the simple, salt-of-the-earth folks who muddled along while the nation got the holy shit bombed out of it by the Germans.

The Land Girls, the most recent feature from director David Leland -- whose debut, Wish You Were Here (1987), made a star of Emily Lloyd -- is firmly in that honorable tradition, though it cannot hold a candle to John Boorman's wonderful Hope and Glory (1987), probably the best such film since the Fifties. That Boorman is old enough to remember the war and Leland isn't may account for the difference.

The movie takes its name from the popular designation of the Women's Land Army, an organization whose members volunteered to work the farms after Great Britain's men went off to war. (The WLA was founded in World War I and wasn't officially disbanded until 1950.) Young urban women being uprooted and sent to the countryside for temporary service during a period of national crisis provides a perfect backdrop for a romantic melodrama. And a romantic melodrama is what Leland provides.

Stella (Catherine McCormack) is a proper, self-possessed young woman, apparently with an upper-class background; Ag (Rachel Weisz) is a professional virgin who is saving her virtue for true love; and Prue (Anna Friel) is an aggressive free spirit with a strong and undisguised sex drive. The three find themselves posted at the Lawrence farm in Dorset. All the healthy young men have left to fight the good fight, with the exception of Joe Lawrence (Steven Mackintosh), who, along with his aging parents, struggles to keep the farm going and to meet government demands that they increase production.

The Lawrence patriarch (Tom Georgeson) isn't too keen about taking on the girls, but he has no choice; his wife (Maureen O'Brien) has health problems, and the war isn't helping matters. While the elder Lawrence eventually comes to accept the young women, his misgivings aren't completely misplaced. No sooner have the girls arrived than each in her own way takes a shine to Joe. Indeed, much of the film's first half is lighthearted, kind of a role-reversed joke: Did you hear the one about the three traveling land girls and the farmer's son? But halfway through, the action turns extremely soapy, as Stella, who is already engaged to the socially desirable Philip (Paul Bettany), finds herself falling for Joe in a serious way.

Those in search of an undemanding weepie may find The Land Girls satisfying, but it's an easy film to pick apart. In both tenor and detail it trips over itself repeatedly. Why, for instance, does Leland insist on a scene in which the bombing of Pearl Harbor is announced? It serves little dramatic purpose, but it immediately yanks the audience out of the film's reality. Geez, you think, 1941 must have been the hottest damn winter in the history of England, given how lightly everyone has been dressing. Why is a hospital ward lighted like something out of a David Lynch film, even though the scene takes place during visiting hours? (Leland shows an affection throughout for unnecessarily dim lighting.)

More important than these quibbles are some odd choices of tone. While two of the girls comfort the third, whose lover has just been lost at sea, Leland keeps cutting to closeups of them gently stroking her suds-covered flesh, as if he's about to spring a lesbian subplot on us. It's downright weird and downright distracting.

And how can anyone defend the moment when Joe sprints across a field yelling "Stella!"? It's supposed to be one of the story's emotional high points, but there will be few viewers who can resist giggling at the obvious reminder of Marlon Brando and Kim Hunter in A Streetcar Named Desire.

By its end, the movie has become a standard-issue tearjerker, awash in nauseatingly noble self-sacrifice and stiff-upper-lip stoicism. The final bit of voice-over -- "There's always hope ... just as there are some things that always remain in the heart" -- sounds like a line cut from the recent Hope Floats for being too sappy.

Now there's a notion to give you the willies.

The Land Girls.
Directed by David Leland. Written by Keith Dewhurst and David Leland. Starring Catherine McCormack, Rachel Weisz, and Anna Friel.


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