The Hit (Frears, 1984)

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Before the comedic and weighty social commentaries My Beautiful Launderette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, Stephen Frears dealt with the hierarchical power struggles of fringe characters on an instinctual level in his sun-drenched Gangster film The Hit. Traditional genre archetypes – the hit man, the mole, the apprentice – are boiled down to the barest essentials, then thrown together to simmer under the harsh heat of the Spanish landscape. This scenario pits each character against the element of time, whether it’s John Hurt’s veteran assassin attempting to teach Tim Roth’s naive upstart or Terrence Stamp’s stool pigeon facing inevitable death, all vying for control of a botched kidnapping that ripples outward and seemingly touches all aspects of the locale. Frears also wonderfully juxtaposes the blinding light and endless openness of the desolate countryside with the dangerous and dark menace of Gangster film motifs, most importantly betrayal. The Hit takes on an ambiguous, almost metaphysical stance toward the weaknesses of its characters, men and women traversing a deadly path riddled with deception and sudden pin point violence. Fate catches up with you in the end, but you’ll see it coming a mile away.

Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (Frears, 1987)

This film would definitely have more resonance if I’d experienced the multicultural revolution in London during the 1980’s. Much of Sammy and Rosie Get Laid feels overtly political and drolly comedic, an awkward hybrid difficult to address. Director Stephen Frears uses a bickering interracial couple as a springboard into the contradictions, fallacies, and misnomers concerning racism and police brutality throughout a few turbulent days in the city’s ghetto. Sounds serious? Not entirely, as Frears injects dark humor and sexual nuance into the weighty material, giving the film a strange and sensual nature hard to pinpoint. Also, the film has one of the great triptychs of all time, a threesome worthy of aesthetic bliss.

High Fidelity (Frears, 2000)

Having just read Nick Hornby’s great source material, it’s clear how and where Frears encountered problems with this adaptation, specifically Rob’s long history with heartache and breakup, which gets simple, fluffy exposure in the film, and devastating clarity in the novel. All in all, these issues have very little to do with the success of the film and the end result is a great transformation from the written word to silver screen, aided exponentially by the perfect casting of John and Joan Cusack, Todd Louiso, and of course Jack Black. In the film’s arousing final scene, Sonic Death Monkey (which might be my favorite name for a band ever) led by Black’s rotund Barry, delivers a sly mixture of arrogance, charm, and genuine sweetness with beautiful ease, a great example of the film’s outlook on pop culture, relationships, and love. Too bad Frears couldn’t have found a way to bring out Rob’s inherent bastard with more effect, which is so key to Hornby’s written trials and tribulations.

Mrs. Henderson Presents (Frears, 2005)

Mrs. Henderson Presents is a delightful WWII era comedy about a rich woman who opens a vaudeville type theatre, proves even his lesser efforts are incredibly fun to watch. Judi Dench relishes every second as Mrs. Henderson and her chemistry with Bob Hoskins’ director make for some grand moments of good old fashioned bliss. Mrs. Henderson Presents takes on some less demanding themes than Frears’ more politicized films, but the whimsey, laughter, classy nudity, and glamour mix well in a bubbly sort of way. This film should be praised for it’s complete dedication to storytelling, even if it doesn’t have to same lasting dynamic affect of The Queen or Dirty Pretty Things. But then again, it’s not meant to, and that’s refreshing in itself.

The Queen (Frears, 2006)

Stephen Frears has yet again proven why he’s one of the most consistent filmmakers working today. His new film, The Queen, a beautifully made slice of historical fiction favors depth and smarts over sensationalism. For me, Frears’ High Fidelity and Dirty Pretty Things elevated and deconstructed their respective genres, adding layers of subtext and political consciousness where other directors would have simply injected familiar conventions. Frears has a special talent for seamlessness, or simply making me forget I’m watching a film. Probably more so than any other filmmaker, Frears enables the story you are watching to feel crucial, needed, important, as if you are apart of a point in history which could change these characters lives forever. The Queen, a biopic of the tumultuous relationship between Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) and newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), who in the summer of 1997 feuded over the royal reaction to the death of Princess Diana in a car accident. In short, the stubborn tradition of the Windsor Crown coming to grips with the modernizing, forceful young political voice of the people. Frears deftly establishes the histories of all involved through archival footage and a great script, shedding light on both the Royal’ Family’s dower opinion of Diana versus the Princess’ place in the hearts of the British people. The people want The Queen to issue a public statement, showing a human side to the figure head of state. The Queen, her nagging husband Philip ( James Cromwell), and the rest of the Royals don’t feel a public vision of mourning is appropriate, let alone traditional. Frears cuts back and forth between The Queen’s growing realization at the shifting opinions and temperaments of the people and Blair’s quest to assist the monarchy into understanding the need for closure and change. In lesser hands, The Queen would have judged our heroine with a brutal, unflinching eye, casting doubt on her humanity and obsession with power. But Frears, ever the craftsmen, gives Mirren’s brilliant acting creation countless moments of silence, solitude to become human, never a clear-cut monster of aristocracy. There’s a scene in the middle of the film, when The Queen’s jeep breaks down on her cottage grounds, where she sees a beast of nature, free as a bird, with the shouts of hunters and dogs in the distance. She sees a preconceived notion in a different light, and Frears rightly plays it up. Heightened by a great musical score by Alexandre Desplat, Frears moves his characters with ease, the world feeling both real, whimsical, and unstable. The Queen, as it happens, must step outside the world she knows and understand the wishes of the people. A beautiful piece of historiography, The Queen is a perfect fusion of Frears’ penchant for great storytelling and poised political debate, a master once again proving why he’s one of England’s best.