A fellow Midlander, just on the East unlike my own province of the West, Stephen Frears was born in Leicester in 1941 and over the years has built up a profile as one of Britain’s most solid, consistent and prolific directors of the last three decades. His stock in trade very much revolves around portraying real-life figures on screen, often in biographical pictures such as this week’s Victoria & Abdul, which stars Judi Dench as an elderly Queen Victoria, and we review here.
Frears began during the 1960’s directing bits and pieces for the BBC, such as certain Alan Bennett pieces in Play For Today, as well as learning from bastions of mid-20th century cinema such as Lindsay Anderson by working as an assistant director on pictures such as If… 1971 at around 30 years old came his first major directorial effort as a filmmaker with Gumshoe, a little known spoof of the old detective sub-genre starring Albert Finney and Billie Whitelaw. Oddly enough he then went 13 years before directing another film, returning with The Hit (1984), gifting Terence Stamp a career revival after a decade himself in the wilderness and allowing John Hurt to win plaudits as an assassin.
A year later came one of the movies which made his name, 1985’s My Beautiful Laundrette. From a script by Hanif Kureshi, Frears tells the brave story (even today) of a young Pakistani man who has a romantic relationship with a young, white street punk played by Daniel Day-Lewis, in one of his earliest roles that marked him out as the burgeoning cinematic Olivier of our day – not to mention bagging Frears an Academy Award nomination.
Frears continued pushing the boundaries of drama with 1987’s Prick Up Your Ears, from a book by John Lahr and screenplay by Alan Bennett, which depicted the romantic relationship between playwright Joe Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell, before making a significant mark in his lush 1988 adaptation of Les liasons dangereuses aka Dangerous Liaisons, which swopped gay British life for ribald passion in 18th century French aristocracy, with a top drawer cast including John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer and Uma Thurman.
Continuing his flirtation with Hollywood, after more Oscar nominations for his previous potboiler, Frears switched gears in 1990 to adapt Jim Thompson’s neo-noir crime drama The Grifters, produced by Martin Scorsese and starring Anjelica Huston, Annette Bening and John Cusack, who he would later re-team with on an adaptation of Nick Hornby’s romantic comedy High Fidelity a decade later.
Before that followed multiple examples of how Frears was determined to be pinned down in one genre or even location of filming; the little known comedy drama Hero in 1992 was an all-star cast ensemble set in modern America, then Mary Reilly in 1996 sent Frears back (along with Malkovich and Julia Roberts) into a period British setting, with glances at more of a pulp genre than the director ever deigned to play in, given its connections with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde.
1996 saw Frears tackle an Irish drama, pulling back from big budget Hollywood for Colm Meaney-starring The Van (at a point Meaney was still best known for his roles in two Star Trek series), before moving back to America and ensemble players for The Hi-Lo Country in 1998, a modern Western drama which continued displaying his diversity and Frears visible refusal to go by the traditional Hollywood or even Brit filmmaker play book.
He started to return more frequently to British shores for films like dark London drama Dirty Pretty Things in 2002 before beginning an illustrious, Academy-baiting relationship with Judi Dench for the first time in 2005’s Mrs Henderson Presents. It’s almost a surprise she didn’t play the titular role in what remains probably Frears most well-known picture – 2006’s The Queen.
A biographical piece, much like Dench’s aforementioned role, it saw another Dame, Helen Mirren, play Her Majesty during crucial events in her family’s life as an old woman, including the sudden death of Princess Diana. The Queen was a huge international success, winning Mirren the Academy Award for Best Actress and Frears yet another nomination in a career which has yet to see him bag the award in question. No doubt The Queen’s success not just led to Frears’ interest in Victoria & Abdul but also re-teaming with Dench for 2013’s delightful Philomena, from Steve Coogan’s semi-autobiographical, co-written script. That too was feted by the Academy and stands as one of that year’s strongest pictures.
Recent years have seen Frears almost exclusively focus on biography, with 2015’s The Program starring Ben Foster as disgraced athlete Lance Armstrong and 2016’s sweet Florence Foster Jenkins, with Meryl Streep hamming it up as a legendarily bad early 20th century soprano. Whether Frears will continue this love affair with biography as he enters the twilight of his career remains to be seen, but this director seems in no rush to slow down.
What is your favourite film from Stephen Frears? Let us know in comments or on social media.