Not The End after all for Schlesinger Film: British director survives rise-and-fall syndrome to make another truly great movie in "Cold Comfort Farm."

June 17, 1996|By STEPHEN HUNTER | STEPHEN HUNTER,SUN FILM CRITIC

John Schlesinger broke the mold.

The portly, pugnacious British film director, a recent visitor to Washington to plug his new film, has once again insisted on confounding critics and citizens alike, going his own way, smashing all precedent, and parting company absolutely with his peers and acolytes.

And what mold is that?

Why, it's the mold originally set by Alfred Hitchcock, and followed more or less intact by other great Brits, such as Sir Carol Reed, Sir David Lean, Tony Richards and later by another generation, including Ridley and Tony Scott, Michael Apted and so forth.

It goes a little something like this: A British director has a great world movie breakthrough and becomes an international star with a uniquely British film or two. Then he's scooped up by a Hollywood studio or producer, comes to America and tries to rebuild his career to American standards. He may make a huge film, a hit; he may even make a great film; but somehow it all begins to erode, and his career loses force. He slides down through the genres, and his later films are cheesier, trashier, less connected with reality. It happened to them all.

And it seemed to be happening to Schlesinger, the great director of "Darling" and "Sunday Bloody Sunday," who was gobbled up by Corporate Film U.S.A. and rapidly made "Midnight Cowboy" (great) and "Marathon Man" (good).

But times have been tough, and some of the recent movies were somewhat mediocre ("Pacific Heights") and some even rotten, such as "An Eye for an Eye" or "The Innocent." Yes, there you have it: rise, transference, apotheosis, and fall: the pattern, classic and perfect.

But nobody bothered to tell Schlesinger, who very quietly went back to England last year and, working on a small budget for British television without much attention or any Hollywood character in sight, has turned out yet another small masterpiece of the old school, "Cold Comfort Farm," based on the Stella Gibbons classic of the '30s.

"I knew the book of course," Schlesinger, a vigorous 70, confides, "but I never had a burning desire to film it. It was always around the house when I was growing up."

But Schlesinger, now a rotund figure under a bosun's bristle of gray hair and an aging beatnik's black wardrobe, was in the terrible depression of a failed project when a copy of the script that Malcolm Bradbury had written for British television reached him.

"Well, yes, I thought, if I could get the right actors and if I could convince them ultimately to release it theatrically, then I might be interested."

The novel, which watches as a prim British Miss Fixit -- played by Kate Beckinsale -- repairs the ruined emotional lives, to say nothing of the plumbing, in a dreary farmhouse, is an extended parody of various British literary tropes, including the novels of D. H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy. The latter has special meaning to Schlesinger, who directed a literal version of a Hardy novel, 1967's "Far from the Madding Crowd," to less-than-stellar results.

It was also a return to roots of a sort for Schlesinger.

He had not merely read "Cold Comfort Farm" in the '30s, but in the late '50s he'd cut his teeth as a director for British television, and it was on the basis of those assignments that he'd broken through to his first feature, "A Kind of Loving," which in turn let him catch the wave that was all things British in the mid-'60s, when the Beatles and a series of other rock groups, film stars and film directors turned the world briefly into a vast Carnaby Street.

"But I didn't direct ["Cold Comfort Farm"] like a television piece," says Schlesinger now. "I always had my eye on theatrical release."

Aware that he had something special, Schlesinger argued with his sponsors to spring for the money to blow the Super-16 print up to 35 millimeter and then to let him husband it through a careful series of film festival screenings, until it was finally picked up for theatrical release by Gramercy.

It's actually not even the first time Schlesinger has pulled such a trick, though not this successfully. Over the past 10 years, he's returned twice to British television and done two original films, both on the subject of treason for espionage: One examined a meeting between a British journalist and Guy Burgess in Moscow, and the other covered an encounter between Edmund Blunt and the queen, shortly before Blunt had been revealed as HTC "The Fourth Man" in the British spy scandal of the century.

But as fine as those films are, and as dismal as the recent American work has been, Schlesinger makes no distinctions between "serious" work and "entertaining" work.

"I made the choices, and I have to take the responsibility," he says simply. "I love to tell a story of deceit and treachery, like Hitchcock; I love to spring surprises. To me, those films [his "Hollywood" pictures] are simply a part of my body of work."

Pub Date: 6/17/96

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