Early in Cold Comfort Farm, when its heroine remarks that she has “such a lot in common with Jane Austen,” it becomes clear that John Schlesinger couldn’t have picked a better time to become a British director again. After some three decades making mostly Hollywood movies—including Midnight Cowboy, Marathon Man, and many other less striking efforts—the director has reinvigorated his British sense and sensibility just in time for the boom in English literary films. Yet the Austen connection, he says, was “totally accidental.”
Cold Comfort Farm, written by Stella Gibbons in 1932, is a parody that has outlived the object of its ridicule: the novels of “rustic pessimist” Mary Webb. “It’s a very literary satire,” says Schlesinger, one that also includes gibes at D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy—“one of whose novels I did do,” he notes. (That would be Far From the Madding Crowd, which Schlesinger filmed in 1967, shortly before his first Hollywood assignment, Midnight Cowboy.)
Though he’s a London native, Schlesinger’s first theatrical films were set in the bleak, early-’60s northern England of the Angry Young Men: A Kind of Loving and Billy Liar! were among the cinematic touchstones Morrissey used to help define the Smiths’ anti-fashionable northernness. England was starting to swing, however, and Schlesinger soon shifted to such upscale tales as Darling and Sunday, Bloody Sunday, in which attractive young Brits could not merely have sex but even be involved in the occasional bisexual love triangle.
More recently, however, the director has mostly made functional Hollywood thrillers, including Pacific Heights and the ghastly An Eye for an Eye, just released in January. “I haven’t read the press,” he says, “but I understand people got angry” about the latter, which featured Sally Field as a vigilante mom.
Schlesinger dismisses the film’s critics for “political correctness” and explains that he was fascinated not by the film’s theme but by a scene in the source novel where a mother, caught in traffic, hears her daughter’s murder on a cell phone. “I know when something is really interesting to shoot, whether from a book or a script,” he declares.
He enjoys making thrillers, Schlesinger says un-apologetically. He savors manipulating “that invisible thread between you and the audience. When do you want to give them information? When do you want to give them a jolt?”
“People say I shouldn’t be slumming like that,” he notes. “And I say fuck ’em.”
The director insists he doesn’t read reviews of his work. (“People will very quickly tell you,” he says, and within a half hour a local publicist is indeed briefing him on the New Yorker’s favorable review of Farm.) Unlike some critics, though, he sees his Hollywood and British work as interconnected: He prefers people to special effects—“I have no mind for computers”—and his films “are almost entirely about outsiders, the whole lot.”
“The opportunity to come here has broadened my view,” the director adds. “I’m very fortunate to work in both countries, which is really what I want to do.”
Despite his steady production of mainstream thrillers, Farm is not Schlesinger’s first English literary film of recent years. Before filming Eye, he made The Innocent, from a novel by Ian McEwan. Even with a cast that included Anthony Hopkins and Isabella Rossellini, the Berlin-set film attracted little attention. “That was very disappointing,” he says. “It was the most disappointing experience I’ve ever had with a movie.”
The unexpectedly blithe Farm has little in common with either Eye or Innocent—or any film Schlesinger’s directed since Honky Tonk Freeway, a 1981 farce that did not demonstrate an exceptional facility for comedy. A sort of ’30s Sussex version of Clueless, it’s the tale of a pampered but well-meaning young woman (Kate Beckinsale, an Oxford undergraduate when she got the part) who arrives at a dark, dirty family farm and sets about solving everyone’s problems.
Strictly speaking, Farm is a TV movie, partially funded by the BBC (which had already filmed the novel once before, in 1968). “If it’s the only means of going back to work, I’ll do it,” says Schlesinger of working for the small screen. Once he accepted the assignment, however, he ignored the imperatives of TV. “I certainly intended it for the big screen,” he says. “I have no interest in making a TV film.”
“Remember you’re making television,” he was told. “No, I’m not,” he’d reply. “I’m making a film that’s shown on television.”
“This is an audience film,” he says, best seen in a theater. Besides, he gripes, “I’m so tired of people saying, ‘I saw the last 20 minutes. Looked good.’”
Schlesinger’s trek to Cold Comfort Farm actually began when one of his longtime Hollywood projects hit another snag. “I said, to hell with it, I’ll go back to England,” he remembers. He made two other BBC telefilms, A Question of Attribution and An Englishman Abroad, before undertaking the Gibbons novel, which was adapted by novelist and veteran TV scripter Malcolm Bradbury. One advantage he immediately noticed was that the film could be shot in the vicinity of his country house.
“I really love the British countryside,” he explains, preferring his rural home to L.A., London, or New York. “When the BBC said where should we shoot, I said, ‘’Round my house.’”
The spirit of the script made for a relatively relaxed atmosphere on the set, Schlesinger recalls, for both director and cast, which includes Ian McKellen, Eileen Atkins, Rufus Sewell, and Joanna Lumley. “The only thing that wasn’t lighthearted was the schedule,” he says.
Though used to Hollywood production values, Schlesinger claims to “recognize that limitations are not a bad thing. It keeps everyone on their toes.” Still, there were times when the director wouldn’t have minded having the flexibility of an American budget. “Then,” he says, “the BBC became the BBFC.” —Mark Jenkins