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Land Girls

Review: 'Land Girls' win the war for touching cinema

Web posted on: Friday, June 12, 1998 5:32:15 PM

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Before I review David Leland's adaptation of Angela Huth's novel, "The Land Girls," I have to say that the trailer (which I, unfortunately, wound up seeing about 15 times) didn't exactly fill me with high hopes for the movie: It made what turned out to be a rather rollicking, periodically sad little story look like nothing more than the usual contraption of carefully telegraphed violins and treacle.

There are some violins in "The Land Girls," and, before it's all over, more than just a little bit of treacle, but, for most of the movie, I was really enjoying Leland's somewhat irreverent take on what a team of three British women go through after they join the Women's Land Army and are assigned to work on a farm while most of the men are off fighting the Nazis during the blitz.

Everything that could have been over-enunciated is on display as the film opens, but Leland just touches on it to establish a setting, then takes off in several different directions.

Catherine McCormack, Rachel Weisz, and Anna Friel -- each of them extremely talented and just as extremely beautiful -- play 20-somethings Stella, Ag, and Prue, respectively.

We get the basic gist of each of their stories during this opening, which includes the wholly expected "Dear me, I can't milk a cow" routine. Leland handles this with great panache, though. Whereas a film made solely by American hands would likely take this cutesy stuff and run a mile with it, Leland hands it over quickly, then decides that there are more important things to accomplish. The prissy one doesn't have to stick her arm up a horse's backside to deliver a pony, in other words.

Weisz's Ag is that prissy one, but she's not the main focus of the story. That would be McCormack as Stella, who's the only one of the women attached to a soldier boyfriend. The others are just fighting the good fight, but their romantic (or plain old sexual) desires are what drive the movie.

McCormack radiates intelligence

As a specimen of broad-shouldered womanhood, McCormack is simply breathtaking, but, if anybody goes to see it, her movie star-like performance here should absolutely put her on the map with American audiences. (She was previously seen as Mel Gibson's doomed wife in "Braveheart.") She's so good, with a clear-eyed gaze that simply radiates intelligence, I'm sure the studios are already after her, regardless of what happens to "The Land Girls" itself. The big trick, of course, will be finding another script that radiates the same amount of intelligence as she does.

Stella seems the most knowing of the women, getting a secret little kick out of Ag's posturing and Prue's comic pursuit of the resident farmer's soon-to-be 4F son, Joe (Steven Mackintosh). There's more than a little bit of "Hope and Glory" to the movie, and I'm all for that. If you'll recall, that one was John Boorman's near-whimsical 1987 take on growing up wild in London during the Battle of Britain. "The Land Girls" has the same relative sunniness as "Hope and Glory," but, just as Boorman did, Leland can shift gears drastically if he needs to emphasize a bit of drama or make a not altogether obvious point about male-female relations.

Joe turns out to be a pivotal player in each girl's story, mostly (at first, anyway) because he's the only strapping young male around the place. It's funny to see these women, who, under normal circumstances, would be less than inclined to openly pursue a man for purely sexual reasons, take out after Joe as if there's no tomorrow. The point, of course, is that they realize there very well may not be a tomorrow.

Clip: "It's an emergency!"
2Mb QuickTime movie

Entire theatrical trailer
5.5Mb QuickTime movie

Full dose of female bonding

There's a very moving shot in which the women stand on a hillside at night and watch an air raid taking place in the distance, incendiary bombs glowing bright red and orange on the horizon. Stella's fiancé is out there, and, before it's all over, Prue will also go through a heartbreaking ordeal with the soldier she falls in love with. During these sequences, we get a full dose of female bonding, but we're not being taught a lesson, and it never gets sanctimonious.

That is, not until the last 20 minutes or so. A whole lot takes place during the fighting that I won't tell you about for fear of ruining the fun, but there's a rather lengthy post-war denouement that smacks a little too much of a "woman's movie." I've never liked this term (especially in the modern, "Fried Green Tomatoes" sense) because it insinuates that men, pigs that they are, can't fall into a comfortable viewing mindset when it comes to grasping the problems of the opposite sex.

Back in the '30s and '40s, though, a woman's movie was a Joan Crawford or Bette Davis vehicle that showed a heroine standing up to pressures -- medical, romantic, or otherwise -- that could squash any other capable human being who didn't happen to be Joan Crawford or Bette Davis.

Audiences were able to accept this stuff back then (or now, when watching on video) because we had different attitudes about what dramatic movies were supposed to be in those days. Crawford and Davis also happened to possess prime acting skills, so the stiff-upper-lip parade was quite a bit more watchable than it should have been. Here, though, the relative realism of the rest of the movie (which seldom entered into it years ago) is undermined by sudden hugs and painful little tears.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter all that much. This is a near-thoroughly winning film that doesn't club you over the head with contrived "raw" emotion, and manages to pretty much avoid the obvious pitfalls of the setting. It's worth seeing for Catherine McCormack alone, but its charms are more spread out than that. A job well done.

"The Land Girls" contains a few amusing scenes of desperate seduction and some nudity, and a little bit of bad language. The countryside is just as gorgeous as the cast, and Caroline Amies' period production design is also a treat. Rated R. 112 minutes.

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