- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 6, 2001

''Well, it's not New York, but it's very depressing," says director Stephen Frears during a recent phone discussion about his new movie, "Liam."

Booked exclusively locally at the Cinema Arts and the Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle, the film observes the tribulations of a working-class Irish family in Liverpool, England, during the 1930s. The title refers to the youngest member of the family, a little boy portrayed by newcomer Anthony Borrows. He is one of the bright spots in a predominantly bleak evocation of domestic life and social unrest.

Mr. Frears was at home in London upon learning of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. "Somebody came in and said, 'A plane's crashed into a building in New York,'" he says. "I thought it must be an accident. We began watching the coverage on television and very soon stopped thinking that. It was horrifying for days."

The director has worked frequently in America during the past decade from "The Grifters" in 1990 to "High Fidelity" a year ago. He shares the general uncertainty about where movie content is going in the aftermath of the attacks.

"I don't make those big action films," he says. "I could see Hollywood staying away from them. I can't imagine anyone being equal to the enormity of these events just yet. The subject is incredibly interesting, and I mean that in the most serious way, not in a morbid sense. It's bound to have a profound effect on everything. There's all the difference between serious and frivolous filmmaking. I wouldn't know whether people want to escape or want to deal with the experience. But making films about buildings falling down won't be anyone's idea of fun."

Written by Jimmy McGovern, best known for the controversial feature "Priest" and the TV detective series "Cracker," "Liam" came to Mr. Frears' attention as he was being approached about the movie version of Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes." The two movies have striking similarities, although "Liam" eventually concentrates on the moral breakdown of an unemployed shipyard worker, played by Ian Hart. The character exposes his family to additional grief by joining the British Union of Fascists and becoming a raving, incendiary anti-Semite.

Alan Parker ended up with the McCourt best seller. "I could have done one or the other, but I thought 'Liam' was a more interesting story," Mr. Frears says. "I didn't quite understand 'Angela's Ashes.' I mean, I could see that McCourt was a wonderful man. I thought that must be the explanation for the book's phenomenal success. It was that voice. But I didn't know how you could use a film to say, 'Well, things were pretty grim for this family, but a wonderful man did come out of their ordeal.'"

Mr. Frears concedes that the chronology and sociology of "Liam" might be a little hazy for outsiders. "Liberties have been taken with the 1930s," he says. "The episodes about Sir Oswald Mosley's fascist party and the unemployment crises in the shipping industry kind of compress things that covered the whole decade. The British working class were the people most affected by unemployment. In its British way, which was both nasty and ridiculous, the Mosley movement stirred up more trouble by recruiting actively in working-class areas. The situation provided them with opportunities to blame somebody, to exploit grievances and prejudices. I know it must seem odd to Americans that we have a family named Sullivan in which the father is ranting against Irish immigrant labor as well as the Jews. It's part of the irrationality. His own parents, I would judge, were Irish immigrants, as well."

Mr. Frears, born in Leicester in 1941, says he was not familiar with Liverpool. "The writer is Liverpool Irish," he explains. "The whole project was prompted by a sort of ghastly book, a dreadful book that purported to be a social history of working-class life in Liverpool before World War II. He was asked to adapt it but threw it away and substituted some of his own autobiography. It was the producer's uncle who wrote the book, by the way. The producer was quite funny about it, actually."

Mr. Frears studied law at Trinity College, Cambridge before deciding that the theater was in his blood. "The law was frightfully boring," he says. "I turned to performing groups for something livelier and became more interested in becoming a theater director. I became a sort of apprentice to various intellectuals who were doing both theater work and films. Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz were the most influential. They were just wonderful teachers in every sense of the word about life."

Mr. Frears worked as an assistant on some notable English features of the late 1960s: Mr. Reisz's "Morgan," Mr. Anderson's "If " and Albert Finney's "Charlie Bubbles." The Finney connection led to a debut feature in 1972, "Gumshoe," with the actor as his leading man. However, 13 more years passed before Mr. Frears surfaced with a breakthrough feature, "My Beautiful Laundrette," setting off a belated rush of provocative work: "Prick Up Your Ears," "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid," "Dangerous Liaisons" and "The Grifters."

In retrospect, Mr. Frears believes that he was far from ready for a second feature in the wake of "Gumshoe." He acquired both experience and a formidable reputation while directing television movies, mostly for the BBC.

"I didn't know a lot about it when I made my first feature," he says. "I had good taste, and wit. But I was technically very much out of my depth. I did a much better thing by going to work for the BBC. For the better part of 10 years I was working on very, very good material. The best films in England during that time were being made at the BBC. I would make three films a year, written by Tom Stoppard or Alan Bennett or David Hare or writers of similar caliber. I found a whole group of filmmakers and a whole set of values that I was comfortable with. By the 1980s, I had a really good professional education. It was a particular moment. It's gone now. The same state-subsidized patronage system no longer exists. Everything's much more competitive. The young people of my generation really invented this thing called the television film in England."

Mr. Frears can savor what he calls "a sort of spoiled child's position." In other words, "I do whatever interests me. I've been very lucky. There's generally been one thing that I really want to do, and it comes along in a timely way. I never did move to the United States, which may surprise some people because I've worked there so often in recent years. I was entirely a hotel resident. It's such an adventure for me going to America, but it means being away from home."

Among the missed bets, Mr. Frears singles out "Thelma & Louise." The timing was impractical, so much so that he neglected to read the script when it was first offered. "I was doing 'The Grifters,'" he says, "and just didn't have the time or incentive to read another script. Later, I would have liked to have gotten my hands on it. But I doubt if I would have made a film as good as the one Ridley Scott made. The world was robbed of a less interesting film."

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