Triumph of Pluck: Kate Beckinsale in Cold Comfort Farm
I didn’t discover Kate Beckinsale until 1998 when I saw her in The Last Days of Disco. Most American audiences probably weren’t aware of the actress until Pearl Harbor in 2001. But Movieline magazine saw fit to profile Beckinsale in their 1997 Young Hollywood issue based on her performance in Cold Comfort Farm, a British TV movie that received a very limited theatrical release in the United States. Despite protests that she wasn’t interested in stardom, Beckinsale was destined for fame.
When you’re sharing the screen with half a dozen of Britain’s finest character actors, it isn’t easy to shine. But in Cold Comfort Farm, Kate Beckinsale not only held her own against seasoned pros like Eileen Atkins, Ian McKellen and Freddie Jones, she managed to make the whole movie her own. As Flora Poste, the down-on-her-luck aristocrat who moves in with a farmload of mildly depraved country relatives and puts their lives in order, Beckinsale was essentially playing a meddler–a potentially off-putting sort of character. But she made Flora endearing, and she did so without glossing over her character’s tyrannical tendencies.
On her first glimpse of the Gothic monstrosity called Cold Comfort Farm, Flora says, “Well, it is a little gloomy, I agree.” But there’s not a trace of apprehension or self-pity about the way Beckinsale delivers the line. Throughout the film, Flora meets every challenge with the same equanimity. When her lecherous cousin (Rufus Sewell) makes a play for her, she stares him down without the slightest tinge of fear. Beckinsale finds the charm in a busybody with a will of steel; she has us cheering the character’s victories over the rustics. And it doesn’t hurt that she looks smashing when she’s dancing a rumba in a sleek black cocktail dress.
“My biggest challenge was to make Flora funny and likable without making her too arch,” Beckinsale says. “You have to like her, or you won’t follow the story. Maybe it helped that I actually did like her. She’s an organizer of other people’s lives, but she’s bloody good at it. Usually a character like that, who believes that she’s imparting wisdom to everyone else, will get her comeuppance. But Flora gets away with it. And that was a lot of fun to play.”
Beckinsale almost didn’t get the part, however. When she went in to meet director John Schlesinger, she says, “I dressed very young. I went in wearing something frivolous, a blue satin outfit. I thought I had the part, but they turned me down.” Undeterred, she wrote a letter to Schlesinger. “That’s something I’ve never done,” Beckinsale says, “but it showed I was game. The second time, I went in more soberly dressed.” Her determination may have convinced Schlesinger that she had something in common with the plucky Miss Poste, and she joined the company.
The prestigious cast did not intimidate her. “English actors are very accessible,” Beckinsale points out. “They all work in theater, which is a great leveler. They don’t come to work with entourages the way some American actors do. Besides, I had already done Much Ado About Nothing, where I was the young one in this cast of flashy actors, so it wasn’t a new experience for me.”
Although she had acted in small European films and television shows, as well as Much Ado, Beckinsale wasn’t really noticed until Cold Comfort Farm. But her standout work in this film has brought in a batch of offers. She worked in London theater for the first time, and she was cast as the lead in the A&E/United Film & Television Productions’ version of Jane Austen’s Emma (which premiered on U.S. television this February), which has the disadvantage of coming months after Douglas McGrath’s successful film of Emma. “Neither film really does justice to the book,” she comments. “So much of the action of the novel goes on in the heroine’s head, and that’s hard to capture on film. I thought the movie had the same problem, even though Gwyneth Paltrow is a very good actress. Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility work better because they’re more plot-oriented.”
Beckinsale has also completed a contemporary comedy called Shooting Fish. But she has no burning ambition to become a Hollywood star. “I can’t pretend to have my pick of A-list parts,” she confesses. “Usually what I’m offered is a supporting part of a girl who takes her clothes off. I don’t need to do that. Also, I know it’s not chic to say so, but I want to be close to my mom. I’m not dying to move to Los Angeles where I don’t know anyone. To be honest, I would like to have worked more, but I haven’t found lots of parts like Flora Poste. The worst thing to happen to me is that I sometimes get a bit bored. But I think that’s better than becoming a junkie and going mad because of the pressures of a thriving career.”