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The Essentials: 5 John Schlesinger Films You Can't Miss

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist July 27, 2012 at 9:56AM

He’s not a name that many young filmmakers reference these days, but British director John Schlesinger quietly managed a career spanning five decades, with a small fistful of classics to his name. A former actor, Schlesinger moved into documentaries in the late 1950s, graduating to features soon after, and worked fairly prolifically until 2000’s “The Next Best Thing” (admittedly a rather ignominious end to a great career), a film released only a few months before he passed away from a stroke.
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Far From The Madding Crowd
"Far from the Madding Crowd" (1967)
After Julie Christie won her Oscar playing a free-spirited model of the moment in "Darling," Schlesinger cast her in this period piece, an adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel with decidedly modern themes of sex, love and marriage. Christie plays Bathsheba, a strong-willed independent woman who inherits a farm property and decides to run it herself. She refuses suitors like the earthy, rugged shepherd Gabriel (Alan Bates) and the older landowner Boldwood (Peter Finch, also great in “Sunday Bloody Sunday”) because she doesn’t truly love them and can’t bring herself to marry without love. She becomes entranced with the sexy, sly military man Troy (Terence Stamp) who seduces her, marries her and then no joke, fakes his own death and joins the circus in order to end their tempestuous union. It’s a gorgeous film, sumptuously depicting the rural English countryside, but Schlesinger’s camera does more than just capture its natural beauty; it interprets the material, commenting on it visually, and creating a subjective look into Bathsheba’s world (helped in no small part by the cinematography of Nicolas Roeg). Whether it’s a psychedelic sequence of Troy seducing her with his swordplay (stop sniggering at the back...) or a simple pan to a music box, it speaks volumes about Bathsheba’s station and her mental state. Schlesinger’s "Darling" ended up frozen on a magazine cover, stuck in a marriage in the modern world, and in 'Madding Crowd,' these themes come up again, the free woman trapped in the amber of a traditional marriage, love and sex much more complicated and fraught with danger than it seems. The director transplanted the persona of Christie he's already helped establish to this period piece in order to make his comment about sex and marriage in modern times. She is a wild-haired, passionate sprite in this film, and fills it with her unique feminine power. Schlesinger clearly had a thing for strong women and it is no more clear than in “Far from the Madding Crowd.” Fingers crossed for a Blu-ray release of this gorgeous, underrated classic soon.

Sunday Bloody Sunday
"Sunday Bloody Sunday" (1971)
While known as the infamous shooting incident of unarmed civilian Irish protesters by the British Army which spawned the famous U2 song, John Schlesinger got to the title first a year before with his controversial (and socially groundbreaking) love-triangle drama. Nominated for four Academy Awards -- Actor, Actress, Director and Original Screenplay-- Schlesinger has always been known for exploring the complexities of human relationships and with "Sunday Bloody Sunday," he helped usher in the then-taboo subject of bisexuality into the mainstream. Peter Finch stars (in a part originally intended for Alan Bates and played for the first two weeks of shooting by Ian Bannen, who was fired because of his nervousness about kissing another man) as a Jewish doctor who’s having an open relationship with the free-spirited bohemian and artist Bob Elkin (Murray Head). The problem for Finch’s Daniel Hirsh character is that Elkin is also in a commitment-free relationship with Alex Greville (Glenda Jackson), and the psychological drama vacillates between the jealousies, insecurities and heartaches that occur when trying to navigate such a tricky triangle. Schlesinger wisely doesn’t editorialize either sexuality and “Sunday Bloody Sunday” could have essentially been a love story about any three individuals of any sexual orientation. Indeed, considering it's forty years old, it's remarkable that he was able to treat Finch's character in such a matter-of-fact way, although obviously less so when you take the director's own sexual leanings into account. We look forward to the Criterion edition in October a great deal, not least for another chance to keep a look out for a 14-year-old Daniel Day-Lewis, who makes his screen debut in the film.


Cold Comfort Farm
"Cold Comfort Farm" (1995)
For the most part, Schlesinger lost his mojo a little after the 1970s; some decent films, like Cold War drama "The Falcon and the Snowman" followed, but little that deserved to sit alongside his very best work. However, the director did make some terrific TV dramas back in the U.K., most notably an adaptation of Alan Bennett's "A Question of Attribution" and "An Englishman Abroad," and one little picture stands out in particular, in part because it got a theatrical release in the U.S. -- 1995's "Cold Comfort Farm." Schlesinger had been a fan of Stella Gibbons' 1933 comic novel, a parody of writers like D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy (there are certainly echoes of 'Madding Crowd' in the film) for decades, and the BBC/Thames Television adaptation was perfectly timed, at a point at which Merchant-Ivory and their knock-offs dominated the industry. The plot could be from any one of those films: orphan Flora Poste (a then 21-year-old Kate Beckinsale, in one of her earliest roles) is left with only £100 a year for her upkeep, and hopes to find a place to live with relatives. As it turns out, the only available place is with the backwards Starkadders, who own the world's most horrible farm out in the countryside. They're a happy bunch, and the upbeat Flora sets out to fix their various problems, from the youngest son's (Rufus Sewell) desire to be in the movies, to the deep depression of the mother (Eileen Atkins). It's consistently and gloriously funny, even if you're not familiar with the books that it's teasing, and Schlesinger feels invigorated by the material; he brings an almost gothic atmosphere to the farm, and directs with the energy of a much younger man. It's a deeply playful film, which extends to the cast, every one of whom seems to be having a blast, from Ian McKellen's fire-and-brimstone preacher to Stephen Fry's lovestruck intellectual. Perhaps, most impressive in retrospect, is Beckinsale, who takes a tricky part and makes it soar; it's hard to reconcile the promise shown here with the subsequent career of kicking vampires in the face. A truly underrated gem.

- Katie Walsh, Oliver Lyttelton, RP

This article is related to: John Schlesinger, Features, The Essentials, Julie Christie, Tom Courtenay


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