- The Washington Times - Friday, June 26, 2009

No filmmaker wants to be thought of as a one-trick pony, but few can claim to be as versatile as Stephen Frears.

In a 40-year career, the British director has made all kinds of Hollywood hits and English independents. His directorial debut, 1971’s “Gumshoe,” was an affectionate spoof of detective stories starring Albert Finney. He then spent years working in British television before 1985’s made-for-TV “My Beautiful Laundrette,” in which Daniel Day-Lewis played the gay lover of a Pakistani-Brit, was released in theaters and caught the world’s attention. He dramatized the tragic life of playwright Joe Orton in “Prick Up Your Ears” and the sexual intrigues of 18th-century French aristocracy in “Dangerous Liaisons.” He’s made a Western — “The Hi-Lo Country” — and a gangster flick — “The Hit.”

He got his first Oscar nomination for best director in 1991 for the neo-noir pulp adaptation “The Grifters” and his second in 2007 for the ripped-from-the-headlines examination of Elizabeth II and Tony Blair in “The Queen.”

His latest film, “Cheri,” is an alternately light and dark tale of love and obsession in belle-epoque Paris, based on Colette’s novels about an aging courtesan and her much younger lover.

Mr. Frears says his range is the result of his upbringing in Leicester.

“That’s just the way I am, really. I always think it’s the work of the spoiled child — I want to do this, so I’ll do it,” he says by telephone. He’s had some enormous successes — such as “Dangerous Liaisons” and “High Fidelity” — but he’s never been tempted to repeat them.

“That would be rather dull, wouldn’t it? I like the fresh challenge. I like to go on learning,” he says. “Any film you make, you’re shocked by how little you know.”

The 68-year-old says he’s not one of the many filmmakers who dreamed of becoming one since youth.

“It wasn’t like that in those days, the days when I was young. People didn’t make films. Films were made by other people. It wasn’t part of life in the way it is now,” he explains.

He studied law at Cambridge instead, though his calling eventually found him. “It was just ridiculous. I was doing what I was told,” he says. “Then I wanted to work in the theater, and then I met a film director. It’s all been a complete accident.”

Nothing in his latest outing is, though. “Cheri” is a luscious film, its beautiful lovers (Michelle Pfeiffer and Rupert Friend) backed by an equally gorgeous landscape of houses, gardens, costumes, food and champagne. What isn’t exposed is just as important as what is, however. “I like those films where people don’t show their feelings; life sort of creeps up on them,” Mr. Frears says.

Another thing you don’t see is how the courtesans made their impressive fortunes. “Thank God; it was so dreadful,” he says. “These men would give them houses and cars and stocks and shares. It was incredible. Of course, it all came crashing down, rather like now.”

His characters’ psychological states, which range from blissfully in love to terrifyingly in love, also are handled subtly — partly by Alexandre Desplat’s creative score.

“It’s really doing all the interior life. All the sadness that’s going on underneath, that’s how you’re dramatizing it. He’s a fantastic composer,” Mr. Frears says.

“Cheri” is the first Frears film in which the director himself makes an appearance — though uncredited, he serves as the narrator.

“It’s in the film by popular demand,” he jokes.

Screenwriter Christopher Hampton started writing the narration in the cutting room, and Mr. Frears recorded it as a guide, planning to hire a woman, but everyone liked his work. His singsong voice actually proves a perfect foil to the film’s tragedy, just as the opulence on display is.

“That’s what made the film so interesting,” he says of that contrast. “That was what the job consisted of. It was hard work.”

He also delighted in making a film about an older woman who buys the attentions of a younger man.

“When Colette wrote it in 1920, it must have been very shocking,” he says. “Turning about the tables, that’s where the fun was. It was a reversal that was so satisfying.”

Mr. Frears is a genial interviewee but not one prone to long answers — until he’s asked about Britain’s political crisis. Then he becomes much more animated.

Mr. Frears worked with screenwriter Peter Morgan on the political dramas “The Queen” and the made-for-television “The Deal,” which focused on the agreement between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown that led to one becoming prime minister before the other. Now Mr. Brown is finding his Labor government falling apart.

“We scarcely have a government. Anarchy has finally broken out in the U.K.,” Mr. Frears says with a certain relish. “It’s great. It’s immensely entertaining. It’s awful, but on the way, it’s entertaining.”

It’s actually a sad picture for those who have seen Mr. Frears’ film about how Mr. Brown waited his turn after stepping aside for Mr. Blair. “Everything goes back to ‘The Deal,’ really,” he says, calling Mr. Morgan’s script “entirely prophetic.”

Mr. Frears sees big changes ahead. “As a result of Blair, the constitution will be changed. He caused chaos, real chaos. In that way that Bush caused chaos. It could even be there’s a written constitution,” he says. “Because he was so skillful at abusing power. The tragedy was, he was just a very, very clever politician. He didn’t have a thought in his head. He just wasn’t a very decent man.”

He adds, “Brown, who was a decent man, didn’t have those qualities. He isn’t good on television.”

The scandal over parliamentary expense accounts fueled the current crisis. Of course, abuse of power likely has gone on for centuries, but the filmmaker says Britons didn’t mind when it was just “the upper classes.”

“Somehow you expected it of them. The Labor Party was supposed to be different. We haven’t got Barack,” he says, referring to President Obama, who he reports is “enormously” popular in Britain. “As usual, you are ahead of us.”

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