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Just as Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm has outlived its specific satirical target, so John Schlesinger’s film of the 1932 novel transcends its source. Gibbons’ novel was originally intended as a parody of the “rustic pessimism” of Mary Webb, whose best-known novel, Precious Bane, has been largely forgotten; many of Farm’s flourishes, such as its pretense of being set in “the near future,” lost their edge decades ago. Yet Schlesinger’s film, an unexpected success for a long-underachieving director never known for his comic touch, seems as timely as Clueless, a similarly blithe farce that it (no doubt unwittingly) resembles.

A well-educated but suddenly orphaned and impoverished 20-year-old, Flora Poste (Kate Beckinsale) is thoroughly up-to-date and quite comfortable in London, where she is staying with her older, widowed friend, Mrs. Smiling (Absolutely Fabulous’ Joanna Lumley). Nonetheless, she rejects her friend’s suggestion that she stay in London and get a job, then a fashionably daring course for a young woman. Instead, Flora decides that she will live with rural relatives, collecting observations for the Jane Austen–style novel she will write at age 53. After auditioning several possible households, she settles on the suitably odd-sounding Cold Comfort Farm, whose inhabitants intriguingly admit to having done her father “a great wrong.” (Schlesinger giddily teases the audience with this and other never-to-be-revealed secrets.)

Arriving at the remote, outdated Sussex farm inhabited by the Starkadders, Flora is greeted with exceptional squalor and despair. “All has turned to sourness,” explains farmhand Adam Lambsbreath (Freddie Jones) when he meets Flora at the nearby train station, and there’s seldom been a bleaker house than the Starkadders’: Matriarch Ada Doom (Sheila Burrell) stays in her room, reflecting endlessly on how she “saw something nasty in the woodshed” as a child; Aunt Judith (Eileen Atkins) is a dour, haunted, Tarot card–reading presence; Uncle Amos (Ian McKellen) is the most doomstruck of Protestant preachers; and cousin Reuben (Ivan Kaye) sullenly assumes that Flora plans to take the farm away from him. The livelier members of the family are equally odd: Cousin Elfine (Maria Miles) is a crazed nature sprite, while oversexed cousin Seth (Rufus Sewell) dreams of “the talkies” while regularly knocking up the local milkmaids. Even local literary light Mybug (British comic author Stephen Fry) is a pain, an overripe D.H. Lawrence type who falls “engorgedly” in love with Flora.

An utterly self-possessed busybody, Flora doesn’t let her impeccable manners prevent her from remedying the farm’s coarseness. Beginning with having the curtains in her room washed—“I think they’re red, but I’d like to know for sure,” she explains—Flora is soon instituting the custom of afternoon tea, slipping copies of Vogue to Ada Doom, and dispensing birth-control advice. “It is impossible for any of us to leave here,” Flora is informed, but she soon discerns that most of the Starkadders have places they would rather be, and she conspires to get them there. Flora’s quest to tidy up Cold Comfort Farm turns out to have profound, and entirely benign, consequences. If anything, Farm is even more jaunty than Clueless.

Made quickly on a BBC TV budget, the film owes much to its exceptional cast. Beckinsale’s Flora is both outrageously imperious and altogether charming, and the actors who portray the Starkadder clan make the most of their one-trait roles. As the doleful yet ambitious Amos, McKellen redeems himself for the unbearable Richard III, while Sewell’s Seth is a lout of surprisingly delicate sensibility. Perhaps most striking is Atkins’ severe Judith; Flora’s entire triumph can be read in the tentative smile that forces itself across Judith’s face when she turns up the sun card in her Tarot deck.

More than simply an entertaining footnote to the current Jane Austen boom, Farm is a sparkling meditation on the long-standing antipathies between rural and urban, peasant and sophisticate, pessimist and optimist. (There’s even a subplot that offers a good-natured justification for the London-born Schlesinger’s long sojourns in Hollywood.) Novelist Malcolm Bradbury’s script borrows its best gags from the novel yet manages to finesse skillfully the more dated and parochial aspects of Gibbons’ scenario. At a time when richly appointed sitcoms like Sense and Sensibility have given the British rural past a glamorous sheen, Flora’s insistence on modern standards of hygiene is both amusing and useful.

Zipping from Prague to Langley, Va., to London, Mission: Impossible moves so fast that it’s not clear until the film’s end that it hasn’t gone anywhere. The propulsiveness is a marvel, but it’s the only one. Everything else about this brainless TV knockoff is unconvincing.

Impossible was directed by Brian De Palma and written by David Koepp, Robert Towne, and Steven Zaillian, all Hollywood veterans with above-average credentials. The movie’s crucial credit, however, may be that of co-producer Tom Cruise. The actor stars as infallible (yet easily deceived) Impossible Missions Force operative Ethan Hunt, and the film is a hymn to this superman. Where the original TV series emphasized teamwork and anonymity, Cruise’s Hunt is solitary and high-profile, the sort of supercompetent lone wolf typically exalted by mainstream American movies.

Technically, Hunt is a team player. His first unit is decimated during a counterespionage operation in Prague, however, and handler Kittridge (Henry Czerny, in an echo of his Clear and Present Danger role) distrusts him for surviving the debacle. (There’s also some unexplained investment in the Hunt family farm, but anyone who reads the papers knows that the CIA is not quick to investigate its agents’ inexplicable fortunes.) Hunt puts together another team, but this one’s goal is personal: to prove that the agent is the sort of straight arrow Cruise customarily plays.

For this scheme, Hunt is joined by “disavowed” agents Krieger (The Professional’s Jean Reno) and Luther (Ving Rhames, Pulp Fiction’s Marsellus), as well as another survivor of the Prague disaster, Emmanuelle Béart’s Claire. (Amusingly, the film’s press kit claims that Impossible is Béart’s “first major English-language film,” but she’s not going to get off that easy: She also starred as a celestial sex goddess in A Date With an Angel, a lame 1987 Hollywood teen flick.) Resurfacing midway through Hunt’s dealings with patrician rogue Max (Vanessa Redgrave) is Jim Phelps (Jon Voight), the only character to survive both the original series and the Prague catastrophe.

With latex masks, brief hallucinations, and ambiguous flashbacks, the filmmakers attempt to give Impossible some intriguing perplexity and spooky resonance. De Palma is no Alain Resnais or Nicolas Roeg, however, and these sequences fail to complicate the mood of this simple-minded film. Indeed, Impossible is as reductionist as the least of Hollywood action flicks. It’s little more than three set pieces: the failed operation in Prague, Hunt’s raid on a super-secret computer at CIA headquarters, and a showdown atop a hurtling train. These are adequately staged, but none has sufficient verisimilitude to be gripping. The last one, which redeems Hunt and reveals the true traitors, is particularly shoddy.

Paralleling Lethal Weapon III’s excursion into the under-construction L.A. subway, Impossible couldn’t wait to zoom into a hot new location: the channel tunnel connecting Britain and France. The filmmakers contrive to put Hunt and Phelps atop a speeding Paris-bound Eurostar train, pursued by a helicopter that follows them into the Chunnel. Aside from the impossibility of operating a chopper in a railroad tunnel, this sequence gets almost every possible detail wrong: The train is not a Eurostar consist but a TGV in the blue color scheme that indicates the Paris-to-Brittany route, it’s traveling much too fast to be in England, where the track is not designed for high speeds, and it skips the Ashford station near the channel, which would have brought the wild chase to a complete halt.

Such sloppiness is typical of globe-trotting Hollywood thrillers, but it’s particularly problematic here. After all, mastery of detail is the essence of the IM Force’s strategy. With one sequence in which Hunt reveals himself as a skilled sleight-of-hand artist, Impossible admits that it’s an exercise in fakery. Such conjuring is only compelling, however, when it’s plausible, and the only thing this film credibly simulates is speed. When De Palma finally hits the brakes (leaving behind the alarming threat of a sequel), the movie’s impact disappears faster than a dove obscured by a magician’s handkerchief.CP