‘The Ironic Filmmaking of Stephen Frears’ by Lesley Brill reviewed

❉ Laura Mayne reviews an accessible, nuanced study of Stephen Frears’ films, from anti-establishment to establishment.


Was there ever a director with a more varied filmography than Stephen Frears? With a career spanning almost 50 years and dozens of films (not to mention the many television films he directed in the 1970s and 1980s) Frears is one of the most prolific directors still working today. Oddly, (especially given his impressive output) Frears is often considered to be more meteur en scene than auteur because of his sheer adaptability, as well as the fact that his films are so thematically diverse that they defy categorisation.

Consider ‘My Beautiful Laundrette’, a film about the love between a white fascist and a gay Pakistani laundrette owner, and then consider Helen Mirren in ‘The Queen’; from anti-establishment to establishment, from the complexity of a love which transcends social, sexual and ethnic boundaries to the complexity of day-to-day political life unfolding in a constitutional monarchy. One thing Frears’ protagonists share is that they are often charismatic, well-developed and intriguing, though Ian McKellen’s silent, naïve and abused protagonist in ‘Walter and June’ presents a stark counterpoint to John Cusack’s tortured solipsistic ramblings-to-camera in ‘High Fidelity’.  Basically, plotting a distinctive visual or thematic style across Frears’ films isn’t easy. However, that’s something that Lesley Brill attempts to do in ‘The Ironic Filmmaking of Stephen Frears’.


Ironic, you say? I must admit that when I first picked up the title I misread that as ‘iconic’. But Brill launches a number of convincing arguments which leaves us in no doubt of the complex, many layered, self-aware and often tongue-in cheek nature of Frears’ filmmaking.  In his analysis of ‘My Beautiful Laundrette’, ‘Sammy and Rosie Get Laid’ and ‘Dirty Pretty Things Brill’ deftly navigates through a layered weave of characters and social settings which are far more than what they seem.

Brill’s choice of case studies may seem erratic, but there is a rationale here. Aside from irony, Brill doesn’t tease out many similarities across Frears’ entire body of work (perhaps nobody could) but instead notes tendencies among certain groups of his films – the ‘multi-whatever it is’ in ‘Dirty Pretty Things’, ‘Sammy and Rosie’ and ‘Laundrette’; love, media and memory in ‘The Queen’ and ‘Philomena’; love, power and pleasure in ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ and ‘Cheri’. In truth, to start off with Brill’s writing style is a little dry and a little clunky, but persevere through the introduction and you’ll find this a very pleasant book to read. Brill’s analysis is always relevant and interesting, his writing style is clear and accessible and yet articulate and nuanced, and there’s more than enough here to hold the attention of both the casual and the academic viewer of Frears’ work.

❉ ‘The Ironic Filmmaking of Stephen Frears’ by Lesley Brill is published by Bloomsbury Academic, RRP £96.00


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