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Saturday, July 31, 1999

'THE LAND GIRLS'

Wartime cultivation of English rose


Among the many things the English do right is farming.

Farming in England seems a totally different concept from farming in Japan or Russia or China. A gentleman's activity, it is highly respected and elegantly executed. It's infinitely more chic to live in the country than in the city and many of England's most celebrated people have sought the soil: Prince Charles, Terrence Conran, Derek Jarman, Roald Dahl.

You talk about farming in Japan and what you get are stories of broken backs and selling off one's daughter to buy next year's seeds. In England it's about glens and hot scones with clotted cream and mum in the cottage kitchen making tea -- a paradisal cross between "Chariots of Fire" and "Winnie the Pooh."

All these enviable traits of English farming come to the fore in "The Land Girls," a lovingly crafted work by Britain's David Leland who apparently made it his mission to set the record straight on the wonders of English agriculture, English values and English womanhood. If only Miss Marple was around to see it. As for the average moviegoer, it's refreshing to see a Brit film that draws neither from the upper-class drawing room or the grittier-than-thou working-class scenes. This too, is England (or at least how England used to be) and the tribute paid is such that you expect to hear "God Save the Queen" at the ending credits.

The "Land Girls" is another name for the "Women's Land Army," set up during World War II to help with the farming while the men went off to fight. Little seen and little appreciated volunteers, young women were given three weeks of training and then assigned to farms all over the British isles, regardless of class or occupation. Some of them earnestly wished to pitch in and win the war, and others (naturally) signed up because they were bored with home and young men were unavailable anyway. Nevertheless they contributed hugely to the war effort, and even after the men returned, many chose to stay and continue to work the land.

Ag (Rachael Weisz), Stella (Catherine McCormack) and Prue (Anna Friel) are London gals who bid farewell to life in the city for the rigorous routines of farm life in Dorset. Their boss Mr. Lawrence (Tom Georgeson) is suspicious of city folk in general and young women in particular, especially since the girls tell him right off the bat that they had never milked a cow in their whole lives. But next day at the crack of dawn the girls get into their uniforms (khaki jodphurs, Shetland sweaters and ties) and grab the nearest cow udder. What they lack in skill they more than make up for in efficiency and willingness. Mr. Lawrence is reluctantly impressed.

Meanwhile, Prue wastes no time in seducing the Lawrence son Joe (Steven Macintosh) in the barn, within a week of her arrival. Stella is saving herself for her fiancee, a pilot stationed in Southampton. Ag confesses that at 26, she's still a virgin so what should she do about it?

The wonder is that after a full, 10- to 12-hour workday of tilling the soil and pitching hay, etc., these people still have the energy for outside activities -- no doubt another wonderful aspect of English farming. And talk about doing things in style: The whole cast hits the fields in tweed jackets and extremely stylish Wellington boots which would impress Ralph Lauren himself. The girls wear colorful turbans around their heads, Joe looks stunning in his hunting cap and Mr. Lawrence wouldn't be caught dead without a tie. Not one pair of overalls or sweatpants in sight to muck up the lush green countryside and quaint cottage interiors.

Although the production notes insist this is a women's friendship story, that side of the tale is glossed over. Handling the cows, pigs and the Lawrence men demands the girls' undivided attention, leaving them little time for female heart-to-hearts before an open fire. Rather, what does leave a lasting impression is the girls' innocence and wholesomeness, suggesting old world biscuit tins and delicately wrapped bars of lavender soap. Even Prue, who seems intent on bedding every man who comes her way, is as artless and fresh-faced as a 12-year-old.

As a "what-women-did-during-the-war" picture, "The Land Girls" is several notches below "A League of Their Own" in terms of splash and glamour. But the story and loving-hands visuals create the kind of world Hollywood could never match. Speaking of which, Britan's newest siren Rachel Weisz (see her in "I Want You"), sports a totally different charm from the kind she has become famous for. Free of makeup and knee-deep in dirt, she stands with hoe in hand and scans the clouds for the answer to life (or more to the point, her virginal state).

"The Land Girls" doesn't offer much insight on female friendship but it sure does know how to draw out the women's best and most endearing qualities.

Opens today at the Theater Seiyu in Ginza.


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