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 '50s. 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 the members of which volunteered to work 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.) What a perfect backdrop for a romantic melodrama: young urban women being uprooted and sent to the countryside for temporary service during a period of national crisis. 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 amid government demands that they increase production.
The Lawrence patriarch (Tom Georgeson) isn't too keen about taking on the girls, but he 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 film, 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.
While those in search of an undemanding weepie may find The Land Girls satisfying, it's an easy film to pick apart. In both tone and detail it trips over itself repeatedly. Why, for instance, does Leland insist on having 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, in a hospital scene, is the ward lighted like something out of a David Lynch film, even though it takes place during visiting hours? (Throughout, Leland shows an affection 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 no one can 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 the 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 Leland and Keith Dewhurst, based on the novel by Angela Huth. Starring Catherine McCormack, Steven Mackintosh, Rachel Weisz, and Anna Friel.