Written by: Robert Wambold, special to CC2k
Is Stephen Frears a director for hire or a director inspired?
Before I get to my review of The Queen, let me first launch into a tribute to one of cinema’s most unheralded filmmakers: Stephen Frears.
By my count, in the last 20 years he has made five great movies: The Queen, Dirty Pretty Things, High Fidelity, The Grifters, and Dangerous Liaisons. All timeless and sublime in their own way. All contain breakout performances.
But here’s the problem: Stephen Frears didn’t write any of them.
Here’s the bigger problem: Stephen Frears has never written a screenplay. In order to be respected as an auteur filmmaker, a director either has to write his or her own scripts or develop a signature style. Coppola, the Andersons and the Coens are the former; Scorsese, Spielberg, and Mendes are the latter (for the most part). Frears and other British directors who come from the stage suffer from what I will call the post-Dylan problem. That is, after Bob Dylan burst onto the scene as a singer-songwriter and the Beatles took it a step further, all pop musicians had to write their own music in order to get hipster cred. Or be African-American soul singers.
So I guess what I’m saying is Stephen Frears is Dusty Springfield.
Hear me out. And let’s make the proper film analogy — let’s call it the post-Coppola problem. A stage director takes a well-written script, casts the roles, blocks out the scenes, and helps the actors create their performances. All while adding directorial flourishes in set design and pace. It’s a difficult job and those guys across the pond have it down to a science. Having Shakespeare to work with for the last 500 years helps. Take that method, apply it to film and you have Stephen Frears. His style is subtle, his performances impeccable, and his scripts are always rock-solid. He’s akin to Sidney Lumet, an American director we always seem to forget when talking about the great American filmmakers from the 1970s. (Need I remind anyone that Lumet directed Dog Day Afternoon and Network?)
Going film by film, let’s recap:
Genre: Costume drama
Breakout performance: John Malkovich
Writer: Christopher Hampton, an accomplished playwright
Intangibles: Uma Thurman’s perfect, and I mean perfect, breasts.
Overall: Delicious performances by Glenn Close and John Malkovich punctuate a brilliant adaptation of Hampton’s own play. (Yes, I used the word “delicious.”)
Genre: Film noir
Breakout performance: Annette Bening
Writer: Donald Westlake, prolific novelist and screenwriter
Intangibles: There’s an urban legend that Annette Bening served as the model for the re-vamped Columbia statue in the early 1990s. And she bagged Hollywood’s number one playboy for a husband. The reasons for both of these are on full display in this movie.
Overall: L.A. Confidential is a classic movie, but it’s not film noir. The Grifters is a truly distinguished American noir film.
Genre: Romantic comedy
Breakout performance: Jack Black
Writer: Steve Pink, D.V. DeVincentis, and John Cusack…okay, so this is where the great writer thing goes off the rails but it was at least adapted from a Nick Hornby novel.
Intangibles: It’s personal. Set in Chicago, released while I went to school in Chicago, and reminds me of those salad days whenever I see it.
Overall: Not sure who came up with the direct address device for this movie. I’m sure it was Cusack. But I’ll give Frears some credit for playing his part in fashioning the quintessential male romantic comedy.
Dirty Pretty Things
Genre: Gritty drama
Breakout performance: Chiwetel Ejiofor
Writer: Steve Knight, best known for creating Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, but an accomplished screenwriter nonetheless
Intangibles: Did I mention Chiwetel Ejiofor?
Overall: A sly film about illegal immigrants and what they do to survive. And it plays like a modern version of Casablanca at times.
The most appropriate movie to end a discussion about Stephen Frears. The film, written by the white-hot Peter Morgan (he also wrote Last King in Scotland and his play Frost/Nixon just brought down the house in London), chronicles the week following the death of Princess Diana and how the Royal Family, specifically the Queen, failed to recognize Diana’s importance to the country.
If this plot sounds dull to you then imagine the following scenario. The person you hate the most in your life has just died and, as a human being, you mourn them just as you would any other person. But then that person’s death requires you to mourn them in a way that goes against everything you believe and hold dear. And then when you refuse to change your ways, the whole world makes it clear that they’d rather see you dead instead. A little bit more compelling, no?
While the plot’s main focus revolves around whether the British monarchy is still relevant, the real meat of the film is more internal. Are dignity and cowardice bedfellows? Do we need a leader to comfort us with quiet resolve or flashy theatrics? And why do we need to be comforted? Imagine if George Bush didn’t get on that bullhorn at Ground Zero — would we have turned our grief over 9/11 into anger towards him in the span of a couple days? (As it turns out, we did just that when it took him a week or longer to address the country about Katrina. Of course, no one can accuse him of being dignified.)
Frears and Morgan purposely don’t answer these questions, which results in an ambiguous and complex film. I always find it funny when filmmakers run from ambiguity and complexity, even though every great film has to have both of these traits. A film’s staying power comes from whether you can still talk about it days or years later, right?
The performances, which will get the most attention come awards season this year, are simply the icing on the cake. Michael Sheen, who looks nothing like Tony Blair, delivers a measured and intelligent turn as Great Britain’s newly inaugurated Prime Minister. James Cromwell channels his inner cheekiness and almost steals every scene he’s in as Prince Philip.
Unfortunately for Cromwell, he shares every scene with the pitch perfect Helen Mirren. Before seeing this movie, from the poster and all the press, I was expecting a blistering powerhouse performance. Having read the script previously, it didn’t make sense to me that the movie would go that way, but that was my sense going in. Thankfully, her performance is quiet, subtle, and wickedly funny. The opening credit sequence epitomizes the rest of the movie — the Queen poses for a portrait and looks almost like a corpse; she then tilts her head and looks at us with a cocked, knowing eyebrow. What we come to know is that she thinks she knows all, knows very little, but then seems to know all, regardless. It’s a wonderful dynamic.
I am surprised that she’s getting so much attention for this performance though. Typically, you have to yell and scream or play against type to jumpstart the Oscar train this quickly. The defining characteristic of her character is restraint, after all. The one scene where she emotes involves a clenched back crying fit and a restrained smile. For the rest of the movie, she’s the uptight grandmother trying to run a country without breaking a sweat. The performance is in the eyes, the curled lips, and the vocal inflection. It’s a performance for the ages that usually goes unnoticed in favor of the next hot actress who decides to go ugly. They might just give the Oscar to the right woman this year.
And Stephen Frears' subtle brand of filmmaking will again go unnoticed.