Judge Josh Rode tries to land girls in bars by...wait, that's not what the title means?
"Early starts. Cold baths. Hard work. Sunburn, blisters. Oh, and this scratchy uniform." ~ Nancy, describing the WLA experience.
In 2009 the BBC wanted to commemorate the 70th anniversary of World War Two, so they made a series about the Women's Land Army, created to feed Great Britain during the first and second world wars. You know the idea: all the men are off fighting, so the women have to step in to traditional male roles such as factory work, playing baseball, and, in this case, growing crops.
Facts of the Case
Four women with different backgrounds but similar stories join the WLA and are sent to Hoxley Manor to grow potatoes. The five part series Land Girls won Best Daytime Programme at the 2009 British Broadcast Awards.
• "Childhood's End"—Introductions, of course, and Bea goes against her sister's wishes, with disastrous results.
• "Secrets"—Everybody seems to have at least one, which means trouble is brewing.
• "Codes of Honour"—There's an Axis sympathizer afoot. Or not. Also, Joyce's husband shows up rather unexpectedly.
• "Trekkers"—Spock and McCoy…no, wait, those are Trekkies. Homeless vagabonds seek shelter.
• "Destinies"—Everything comes together except for the loose ends, which are left dangling.
As with most BBC shows that make it across the pond, Land Girls is sumptuously filmed, well executed (except for the annoying "dramatic" use of slow-motion, which fails to create drama but does make it seem as if the DVD is skipping), and reasonably well acted. It ends up being less than the sum of its parts, however, because it simply tries to do too much.
The series is ambitious, attempting to show everything the writers could think of that might have happened. Sadly, 223 minutes isn't a big enough cup to hold that much story, so the plotlines that don't slop over the side and get lost before finding satisfactory endings (such as Bea's attempt to rectify segregation) are forced into linear, predictable paths. When 17-year-old Bea succumbs to a smooth-talking American GI, of course she gets pregnant. From the moment they first lay eyes on each other, it's inevitable that the beautiful Nancy and the hen-pecked Lord of the manor will have an affair.
The characters all start with a defining personality. Each is given a challenge to conquer and each comes through in ways that are consistent with their personalities. Some of them are forced to evolve into something more; others are basically the same at the end as they were at the beginning.
Annie is the big sister who will do anything to protect Bea, including marrying a man she doesn't love (or even like much) so she can rescue Bea from their abusive father. Her big-sisterly-ness also makes her try to rescue everybody else she meets who seems in need. Christine Bottomley (Strawberry Fields) and her soulful eyes make the most of the juiciest part in the show.
Bea starts as a naïve, idealistic child until getting knocked up early on. After that, she loses her childlike nature so completely that she seems a different person. That might be considered a good thing, but I would have liked to see Jo Woodcock (Powder) bring a little more balance to the role. Bea and Billy (Liam Boyle, Awaydays) have great natural chemistry at the beginning, but it is considerably less during the latter parts when it should really shine.
Joyce is the patriot who thinks everyone needs to "do their part," and spends most of the film being upbeat and optimistic while raving proudly about her RAF husband. But when he shows up AWOL, she's torn between wanting to be with him and wanting him to do the right thing. This was Becci Gemmell's first and, other than guest appearances, only acting role. She plays the part well, but she looks about thirty years older than her husband, which is a tad off-putting when they're on screen together trying to act like a loving couple.
Nancy is the beautiful socialite who would rather be anywhere else. She catches the eye of the Lord of the Manor and before you can say "saw it coming a mile away," they're in each other's arms. Summer Strallen (Hollyoaks) really has the least to do in terms of emoting and her character has the smallest story arc, so she seems a bit flat. Nancy is a pampered whiner at the beginning and we're supposed to believe that she has grown and is really enjoying herself at the end, but the only times she seems happy during her stay is when she's with Lord Hoxley. When she tells the next batch of girls that the farm is "wonderful," it doesn't feel completely believable.
The secondary characters are given relatively large parts, although some of those are pretty stereotypical. Lady Hoxley (Sophie Ward, Jane Eyre 2011) is your typical overbearing wife who is able to keep her poor, helpless husband (Nathaniel Parker, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) under her thumb because she knows his not-really-very-scandalous secret. Danny Webb (Alien3) plays the paranoid Sgt. Tucker with such deranged conviction that I cringed along with the characters every time he made one of his abrupt appearances.
Last, but certainly not least, is both the best and the worst part of the show. Mark Benton (Beyond the Pole) is clearly having a blast as farmer Fredrick Finch. His money-making schemes and other exploits provide the comic relief that is sorely lacking from the rest of the script.
But this comes at the severe cost of interrupting the overall story. Finch has almost nothing to do with any of the myriad plots, and his bits of comedy gold not only halt all of the storylines in their collective tracks, he takes up valuable time that could have been better used to solidify some of the shakier parts or to complete some of the loose ends. It would have required just a few tweaks to the script to transfer some of that joviality to the main characters, but they are far too caught up in the seriousness of their individual life tragedies to make the occasional quip.
The 1.78 anamorphic widescreen presentation is crisp and sharp and, as mentioned, really well filmed. The sound is clean and clear 2.0 Dolby. Debbie Wiseman's score keeps itself in the background where it belongs.
A show like this is set up perfectly for extras, but you won't find any. Seriously, not a one. Because very little of importance happened in the world between 1939-1945, so there is absolutely no need to give us any kind of historical perspective, or perhaps have a documentary about the real WLA's working conditions. I'm glad there aren't any interviews with women who went through it, either. That would have been totally uninteresting.
Land Girls is not up to par with the best the BBC has sent our way, mostly because it has bit off far more than it can chew. But it is pretty and sincere and will bring moderate returns to your emotional investment, despite the appalling lack of extras. Think of it as Masterpiece Theater Lite.
Guilty of talking with its mouth full; sentenced to time served.
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