Director SPOTLIGHT: 5 Must-See Films of Stephen Frears
A look at 5 important films from this legendary filmmaker.
Stephen Frears is an English film director working in television and film since the 1960s, a celebrated and critically-acclaimed filmmaker whose influence has shaped many modern films.
A two-time Academy Award-nominated filmmaker, Frears work has covered a variety of genres with a special attention to period films. From his breakout film My Beautiful Laundrette to last year’s Florence Foster Jenkins, he’s consistently produced often beautiful and visually-stunning films that earned high praise and multiple awards. While a few films have failed to reach their potential – the misfire Mary Rielly namely being the most obvious – it’s astonishing how reliably good his movies have been. Here are 5 must-see film from Frears that prove his place in cinema history.
An often forgotten minor masterpiece, Chéri is a small gem of a film, taking place in 1900s Paris, following a passionate affair between an aging retired courtesan named Léa (Michelle Pfeiffer), and a flamboyant young man named Fred (Rupert Friend), nicknamed Chéri. What was meant to be a casual encounter between them becomes a six-year relationship of growth and maturity, but also great love and loss as he must move on and marry, a decision made for him, and one Léa uses as a means to end their time together, a choice that proves nearly impossible to maintain in this heartbreaking tragedy.
Frears has always been subtle and here, working with Pfeiffer for the second time (see below) uses slow zooms and pans, gentle lighting and space to help emphasize the aching moments of desire and ill-fortune of the leads. As you’ll see mentioned a few times soon, Frears works in period films very well and his use of palatial sets and affluent settings are almost a trademark, and here he breathes life into the genre with swatches of white and bright light as allegorical themes for Léa and Chéri. It’s a striking directorial effort and while Pfeiffer is the real reason to watch this, pay attention to what the director is doing. It’s beautiful to look at.
Dangerous Liaisons (1988)
Talk about influential, this period film set in 1781 Paris follows the damaging exploits of two aristocrats who plays with the affections of innocents. The Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close) is a very wealthy single woman seeking revenge against her ex-lover by arranging for Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich), a licentious playboy, to seduce his new young fiancé, Cécile de Volanges (Uma Thurman), though Valmont has eyes also on the seduction of Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer), a monogamous and proper lady and wife to a well-known member of Parliament. A vicious game of hearts and honor soon unravels them all.
Frears keeps this classical, with big open spaces that fill the screen with opulence, giving these colorful characters room to move about, keeping the pace quick but thick with layers of trauma and sometimes brutal vocal interaction. The film went on to win three Academy Awards for screenplay, costumes and art direction, and while Frears wasn’t included his touch is all over the production from the choreographic-like movements of the actors in their grand gowns and tunics to the magnificent shots of the estates, sitting rooms, ballrooms and more. It’s another great looking film that is great fun to watch. Read more about a crucial moment in Dangerous Liaisons here.
The Grifters (1990)
This highly-acclaimed neo-noir crime thriller follows a young man named Roy Dillon (John Cusack), a short con player who gets involved with a long con girl named Myra Langtry (Annette Bening) who uses sex to get what she wants but is not liked by Roy’s mother Lilly (Anjelica Huston), another con artist working for a bookie at the tracks. The three collide and Roy is caught in them middle of two powerful women with different agendas, leading to a dangerous conflict.
Earning his first Academy Award nomination for direction, Frears helms a story written by Donald E. Westlake from the Jim Thompson novel of the same name and it’s clear why from the opening frames. While this is an actor’s film, with tour-de-force performances from all three leads, Frears stages great moments that intimately connect these characters, linking them through stunning visuals and set-pieces that genuinely feels different. It’s a remarkable movie experience that has aged extremely well. Art is a rare thing these days when mentioning movies but this one is exactly that. Read more about a great moment in The Grifters here.
The Queen (2006)
The death of Diana, Princess of Wales seems still to resonate even decades passed and this is a view of her death through the eyes of the British Royal family, most especially Queen Elizabeth (Helen Mirren). The political and personal effects cause great concern for the family and the government with Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) and Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) having opposing views to the Queen about how best to mourn.
Frears earns his second Oscar nod here for a dignified and restrained turn that in many ways reminds us of his work with Dangerous Liaisons, though less playful of course, the opulence of the royal estates somber yet honorable. While this is Mirren’s show, Frears gives her a grand stage to stand upon and it is his trained eye on her that keeps this so remarkable to watch. Slow and steady, he deftly, quietly, moves his camera about, and while we are rarely aware of the direction, are so fully drawn into the story by it, it becomes all the more pronounced. Great stuff.
High Fidelity (2000)
Every once in awhile something really magical happens when great talents work together, and that’s exactly what happened when John Cusack joined Frears again a decade after making The Grifters. The story of a young man in relationship turmoil, Cusack stars as Bob Gordon, a record shop owner who is running down the top five breakups of his life while contemplating a separation with his current girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjejle). It’s a sensational, twisted, character-driven, fourth-wall breaking experience that pulses with great performances, featuring a breakout turn from Jack Black who very nearly steals every damned scene he’s in.
Frears has never been one to stick to patterns and here finds ways to break away even more from expectations, delivering another stylish drama that absolutely thumps with energy. From fast-cutaways to ingenious transitions to contemplative moments of stillness, he brings Gordon to life as much as Cusack does. And Cusack is fantastic. Using music to carry the story, Frears layers the film with beats that drive the story and the audience, making High Fidelity his best film yet. Need more reasons to watch it? Go here.