24. Mrs Henderson Presents (2005)
Not Frears’ finest hour – nor Judi Dench’s either. Sadly, this is a toe-curlingly coy piece of Blitz-kitsch nostalgia, with Dench as the supercilious grande dame Mrs Henderson who buys the Windmill theatre in London’s Soho and turns it into a saucy nude revue that stays open, despite the Luftwaffe’s bombs.
23. Cheri (2009)
A desperately creaky, stuffy, airless period piece, based on the Colette novels. Michelle Pfeiffer plays the elegant courtesan in belle epoque France who is tasked with giving a sentimental education to a boy she calls Chéri, played by Rupert Friend. The cast look like tailor’s dummies in period garb being wheeled around on castors. A pound-shop Les Liaisons Dangereuses.
22. Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight (2013)
The “greatest fight” is Ali’s legal fight in the mid-60s when he was stripped of his world boxing title for refusing to fight in Vietnam, and his appeal reached the supreme court. But this film, obtusely, doesn’t dramatise Ali himself, concentrating on the elderly judges, the cue for much twinkle-eyed character acting from Frank Langella and Christopher Plummer. It doesn’t land much of a punch.
21. Victoria & Abdul (2017)
In which Dench reprises her impersonation of Queen Victoria. The first time around, she was crushing hard on her ghillie, John Brown, played by Billy Connolly, and now it is her Muslim Indian servant Abdul Karim, played by Ali Fazal, in this based-on-a-true-story film. However, it’s a very coy and bland piece of inoffensive heritage cinema.
20. Lay the Favourite (2012)
This is a broad caper about gambling, the excitement of which is difficult to convey properly to uninitiated audiences. It is based on the avowedly true-life memoir of a woman who came to Vegas looking to be nothing more than a cocktail waitress and wound up deeply involved with the scary/thrilling high-rollers. Rebecca Hall is our heroine and Bruce Willis her grouchy boss. A bit moderate.
19. Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987)
This multicultural London movie that Frears made in the Thatcher era was interesting, but didn’t quite come off. The Sammy and Rosie of the title are Ayub Khan Din and Frances Barber, who have a bohemian existence in the capital; then Sammy’s father (Shashi Kapoor) comes from Pakistan, disrupting their precarious happiness.
18. Accidental Hero (1992)
This was a big role for Dustin Hoffman and an interesting and lively high-concept story – but the chemistry didn’t quite work for the film to do as well as it might have done. He plays an oddball hustler midway between his characters in Rain Man and Midnight Cowboy. When a plane crashes on a highway, he drives up to the wreck and saves people’s lives but then has to leave – and finds that someone else is taking the credit for his heroism. Not a bad tale.
17. Mary Reilly (1996)
Julia Roberts’s weird attempt at an Irish accent probably sank this movie, but it has got a lot to recommend it. It’s a retelling of the Jekyll and Hyde story from the point of view of the maid (Roberts), who has no idea that her master, Dr Jekyll, and his sinister friend, Mr Hyde, are the same person – both played by John Malkovich. Atmospheric and interesting.
16. The Hit (1984)
An entertaining selection of well-directed performances keep this film going. Terence Stamp is the supergrass ex-criminal exiled in Spain who finds that old comrades have caught up with him, intent on settling scores. Played by John Hurt and a livewire young Tim Roth, they are disconcerted by Stamp’s Zen acceptance of the situation.
15. Liam (2000)
With a brutally tough screenplay from Jimmy McGovern, Frears strays here into what could be called Terence Davies territory. It’s an account of a 1930s Catholic boyhood in Liverpool, in which Ian Hart plays Liam’s dad, an embittered, unemployed docker with a taste for the booze who becomes a Mosleyite blackshirt, to his family’s dismay. A tough watch, and atypically bleak for Frears.
14. The Program (2015)
The strange case of Lance Armstrong is what Frears addresses in this serviceable biopic written by John Hodge. Ben Foster plays the fiercely committed, impregnably arrogant Armstrong, the Tour de France cyclist who first became an inspirational figure for surviving cancer, only to become notorious for doping and then a long battle with his own awful PR. Foster is very good at conveying Armstrong’s beady-eyed fanaticism and inability to reconcile his “underdog hero” view of himself with the public’s deep disappointment.
13. The Van (1996)
This is just the type of film that responds well to Frears’ gift for getting strong, clear, funny performances across the board, and building the storytelling around them. Colm Meaney plays a shiftless guy in late-80s Ireland who is reasonably happy on welfare but has a Damascene conversion to entrepreneurialism. When his best mate Bimbo discovers an abandoned catering van, the pair have a plan to clean it up (sort of) and sell burgers and chips outside sports grounds. But their big dreams of fast-food wealth go horribly wrong.
12. The Hi-Lo Country (1998)
This is one of Frears’ most underrated movies – a western, to which he brings a cool, understated intelligence and revisionist flair, working from a script by Walon Green, who also wrote The Wild Bunch. Patricia Arquette plays a lonely woman in postwar New Mexico who is drawn to a number of men who aren’t her husband: Billy Crudup’s young rancher and Woody Harrelson’s outrageously brash cowboy. The booming-voiced Sam Elliott plays a wealthy local man who tries to help and advise the hopelessly naive Crudup. A film with real texture and force.
11. Tamara Drewe (2010)
Another underrated movie from Frears, this satire canters enjoyably through the world of English middle-class hypocrisy and vanity. Frears makes this kind of comedy look easy, which is perhaps why it doesn’t get its due. Screenwriter Moira Buffini adapts Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel about a young woman (Gemma Arterton) who returns to her sleepy home village with a nose job and a glamorous position in the media, and promptly shakes everything up. There are great performances in particular from Roger Allam and Tamsin Greig.
10. Gumshoe (1971)
This debut feature is an early gem in the Frears canon, with a great ensemble supporting cast including Frank Finlay and Billie Whitelaw, and a taut script from Neville Smith. Albert Finney stars as Eddie, an ordinary guy in Liverpool who is a bingo-caller and cheesy nightclub comic turn, with an unsightly line in the ugly racist banter of that era. But he also exists in a Walter Mitty fantasy world of private detectives, idolising the screen persona of Humphrey Bogart. When Eddie actually tries to live the private detective dream, by placing an ad for his dubious services in the local paper, someone actually takes him up on it. Soon he is hopelessly out of his depth and his unhinged mental state deteriorates.
9. Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)
This biopic combines sentimentality, comedy and deep strangeness in equal measure. Meryl Streep plays the deluded amateur soprano and fashionable hostess Florence Foster Jenkins, whose off-key warbling at private events horrified 40s New York high society – but everyone was too polite to say anything, or too keen on Mrs Jenkins’s lavish patronage and generosity to comment (other than giggling among themselves). Hugh Grant takes his career to the next level with a great performance as Jenkins’s partner and husband in all but name, a failed thesp who sympathises with Florence’s big dreams and wishes only to bring her some happiness. Streep and Grant are a lovely combination and their gentle chemistry, nurtured by Frears, allows this film to grow on you. At the end, you are laughing with them, not at them.
8. The Queen (2006)
Before there was The Crown, there was this movie, which bears about the same relationship to the racy TV show as Robert Altman’s Gosford Park does to the later small-screen romp Downton Abbey. Screenwriter Peter Morgan showed his witty post-Tussaud mastery of fabricating the private talk of the great and the good, and Helen Mirren gives a lovely, award-winning impersonation of the Queen during the great crisis of 1997 when Princess Diana had just died in a car accident and the public and press appeared to be genuinely turning against Her Majesty for the first time in her long reign. Michael Sheen plays the young and guilelessly pushy new prime minister Tony Blair, who presumes to tell the Queen how to manage public opinion — and also wonders how her loss in reputation might result in a corresponding gain for his. Frears orchestrates all this with terrific brio and gusto, finding that keynote of comic indulgence amid the supposed seriousness and political gossip.
7. Dirty Pretty Things (2002)
This urban-myth thriller from screenwriter Steven Knight has all the ingredients that Frears knows how to blend: a strong, accessible, exciting (and scary) story and three fiercely drawn characters, played to the hilt by three outstandingly good actors – Chiwetel Ejiofor, Audrey Tautou and Sergi Lopez – whose contributions are managed with great skill by the director. Ejiofor is the Nigerian “illegal” in London, working as a hotel night porter and driving a minicab during the day; Tautou is the similarly illegal Turkish woman working as a chambermaid at the same hotel, and Lopez is the sinister hotel manager who informs them that hotels are places where discretion among staff is essential. When Tautou and Ejiofor discover a grisly criminal conspiracy, their story tells us something about inequality and exploitation and how London relies on immigrants as a servant class, who must be demonised so that their wages can be kept low and their working conditions poor. Frears paints the drama with a slightly broad brush, but this is a great, underrated British movie, as relevant today as ever.
6. High Fidelity (2000)
In so many ways, High Fidelity is the perfect Frears project: relatable, smart, romantic, funny and sad, building on British wit to create a Hollywood picture with an indie sensibility. It was adapted from Nick Hornby’s bestseller, transposing the action from north London to Chicago, and turning the hangdog, lovelorn owner of a record store (a retail concept that was more or less extinct even in 2000) into an American: John Cusack, whoalso co-wrote the film. The casting was perfect, and introduced Jack Black to a wider audience as Barry, the testy and massively opinionated music buff and store assistant who makes it his business to terrorise those customers whose tastes do not come up to scratch. Cusack’s character has just been dumped, and all his misery and yearning are channelled into the music he loves. Is music where his fidelity or loyalty really lies, or can music be the gateway drug to real love and a real relationship? This film has been remade and re-franchised over the past 20 years, but this is the original and best.
5. Dangerous Liaisons (1988)
Frears delivered power, intrigue and sexual menace with this story of elegant cynicism set in 18th-century France – a parable of the arrogant ennui that prefigured the revolution. Glenn Close and John Malkovich play the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, former lovers who now jadedly amuse each other with their respective tales of adventures in seduction and the ruination of innocents. The Marquise spitefully bets the Vicomte that he can’t have his way with a certain comely young woman (Uma Thurman), who has had the audacity to accept a marriage proposal from the Marquise’s current lover, thus ending their arrangement. The Vicomte accepts the wager with alacrity and also sets out for another bedpost-notch: the lovely, virtuously married Madame de Tourvel, played by Michelle Pfeiffer. These liaisons are indeed dangerous in ways that the older epicures do not understand. They can fall in love, and fall in other ways as well. The central scene, when the entire theatre turns hissingly on the disgraced Marquise, is genuinely scary. The keynotes of drama and tragedy are atypical for Frears, but he handles them tremendously.
4. Prick Up Your Ears (1987)
A recent re-release woke us up to what a belter this is, and what a masterly exercise in drama and characterisation from Frears, who guides two cracking performances from Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina in a true story of scandal and tragedy. Oldman plays the brilliant and troubled young dramatist Joe Orton who, in the 1960s, set the London arts scene alight with his talentand made no secret of his homosexuality, but evaded censure in an era when it was still illegal. Molina is Kenneth Halliwell, his lover and best friend who becomes unstable and obsessively jealous of Orton’s colossal success while his own career as an actor is fizzling out. Eventually, this toxic and dysfunctional relationship explodes into violence. Alan Bennett’s tremendous script is based on John Lahr’s biography with its cheeky, naughty pun in the title. Vanessa Redgrave has a cameo as Joe’s legendary agent, Peggy Ramsay. It is the perfect Frears storm of great actors, smart script and absorbing drama.
3. My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)
Frears brings us a classic of 80s British cinema here, with its script by Hanif Kureishi, a film that refuses to run on the usual rails of commercial film-making or even on the rails of politically correct or right-on attitudising, despite boldly taking on racism and homophobia. A young and exquisitely beautiful Daniel Day-Lewis plays Johnny, a racist thug who appears to be about to attack Omar (played by Gordon Warnecke). He is a south Asian guy of Pakistani extraction whose wealthy, worldly uncle has put him in charge of one of his laundrettes, one of a string of faintly dodgy business interests. But there is a complication: Johnny and Omar are lovers, and their relationship finds a kind of ironic symbol in the laundrette that may yet get turned into an unlikely thing of beauty. And so the film unexpectedly and subversively taps into the new Thatcherite enthusiasm for small-business entrepreneurialism (it was a time when Thatcher’s Enterprise Allowance Scheme, while undoubtedly intended to keep unemployment figures low, was taken up by many in the leftie arts world).
2. The Grifters (1990)
A modern classic about con artists, this also stars Cusack and is adapted by Donald Westlake from the novel by pulp master Jim Thompson, but finds something a little softer and more emollient than might otherwise be the case for Thompson (less shocking, for example, than his The Killer Inside Me). Cusack plays Roy, a small-time confidence trickster whose mother (and fellow con artist) Lilly, played by Angelica Huston, takes an instant dislike to Roy’s new girlfriend Myra (Annette Bening). This emotional triangulation is the driving force behind calamitous new criminal complications, involving an awful psychological disclosure. In some ways, the most devastating moment comes with Roy’s first misjudgment: a silly little scam to trick bartenders out of high-denomination bills winds up with him getting punched in the stomach by his intended victim with shocking ferocity. When a cop stops to ask the hunched-over Roy if he is all right, Roy obviously can’t say what’s happened and, suppressing gasps of agony has to make light of it, claiming to have food poisoning: a symbol of the self-destructive and dishonest denial that has been going on his whole life.
1. Philomena (2013)
Frears’ chef-d’oeuvre has everything: accessibly rooted in a true story, it has a powerful but controlled display of emotions, is tempered with poignancy and wit, and has great performances from stars and supporting cast. Judi Dench gives one of her best ever performances as Philomena Lee, a tough Irish woman who is on a mission to find out what happened to the baby boy that was taken from her when she became pregnant in the 1950s and was sent to one of Ireland’s notorious “Magdalene laundries”. These were workhouse-style homes for unwed young mothers that allowed childless Catholic couples from the United States to come and adopt the wretched women’s babies in return for a cash donation to the church (naturally, the mothers themselves were not allowed a say in the matter). In effect, a machine for turning shame into money. Steve Coogan plays Martin Sixsmith, the former journalist and New Labour spin doctor who has recently endured a shame of his own relating to a leaked email. It is Sixsmith who helps Philomena on her mission to confront the arrogant hypocrisy of the church. Dench gives a lovely performance as Philomena and Coogan – whose acting skills are often undervalued – is excellent as well. It is a film with all the components for a Frears gem, and the most important is heart. Its compassion and tenderness radiate from the screen.