Placid Stephen Frears makes powerful films A Quiet brilliance

February 23, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Movie directors are surely the most dynamic men in the world. Think of Cecil B. De Mille in jodhpurs with a megaphone and a riding crop. Think of John Huston laughing and fighting and drinking his way through a fabulous career. Think of Woody Allen's neurotic energy or Steven Spielberg's incredible pizazz.

But when one says -- "I sit in a room and people come. I always depend on what's presented" ?

That sounds like a memo from the invisible man, or the winner of the Mr. Passive-Aggressive World Championships. Or maybe it's the man who never was.

But this man is. And, in utter contradistinction to the passivity of his comments and his lethargy in a phone interview, Stephen Frears is one of the great directors of the past decade.

A Cambridge graduate with a long career in TV, he broke through as a film director with a series of edgy, tough films in the early '80s that ruthlessly charted a culture without moral compass: "The Hit," "Prick Up Your Ears," "My Beautiful Laundrette" and "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid," all films of energy and fury.

He was the last of the angry young men, even though he wasn't very young.

Then, almost effortlessly, he skated to these shores after Hollywood made him some big-bucks offers, which he took but selectively: He never really sold out, going his own way with three provocative American productions: "Dangerous Liaisons," "The Grifters" and "Hero." The first was a major success, the second a critical success and the third something of a disappointment.

Now he is in his third culture in five years -- the culture of working-class Irish, doing a scruffy little film of domestic squabbles set in Dublin. It's "The Snapper," based on the Roddy Doyle novel, about the coming of a pregnancy to Sharon Curley, age 20, unmarried and living at home with mom, dad and five brothers and sisters. (It opened in Baltimore Friday.)

So: He went from an American film with a budget of $35 million to an Irish one with a budget of $350,000.

Why? Frears, you had the world on a string. You could be sitting in Malibu (well, Malibu broke off and sank, didn't it?). OK, you could be sitting in your oceanfront condo in Redlands, watching the sun and Malibu sink into the Pacific. You went back for a little bit of Irish fluff? Why, Frears, why?

Well, if you expect big answers from Stephen Frears, you'd best read no farther. He's not a big answer kind of guy.

"I got very homesick."

If you threaten to beat him with sticks, maybe you can get a few more words out of him.

"When something came in that was set in the British Isles, I jumped on it."

So then you play the trick of outwaiting him, as if you are certain there's more to come, and pretty soon he bites (Hint to prospective interviewers: They fall for it every time!)

"I wasn't under pressure or I didn't feel burnt out after 'Hero.' It was not at all clear that it was time to return. It was just that the script was so good and it was an opportunity and here I came. I did it without thinking. It was the right thing to do."

According to Frears, what made "The Snapper" so appealing was the great script by the Irish writer Doyle, who wrote the original "The Commitments" and has just published, to wide acclaim, "Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha."

"He makes Ireland accessible to the English, including two English film directors [himself and Alan Parker, who directed the film version of 'The Commitments']," says Frears. "The books are so alive and they make Ireland seem so alive. England right now is in sort of a wretched muddle."

He was asked if he were worried that Doyle wouldn't be able to adapt his novel into a screenplay.

"I didn't even know he wrote novels," said Frears. "I just read the script first and loved it. Then I learned he was a novelist. Subsequently, I learned he was beloved in Dublin. He writes so directly of Dublin lives that everyone there -- the working class, the whole society -- reads him."

He says he learned Ireland from the actors. "The actors taught me everything. They wouldn't let me make a false move. If I'd tried to be sentimental, they wouldn't have permitted it."

The film is anything but sentimental; it takes place in a kind of spirit of honest practicality. Sharon Meany takes such pride in her pregnancy it rallies the somewhat disheveled and discombobulated family into a total commitment, unleashing all kinds of feelings of love and togetherness.

"Families are the best things in the world," says Frears.

And in keeping with his utter cosmopolitanism, his next film is completely unlike this one. It's the romantic horror film "Mary Reilly," about the housekeeper who loved Dr. Jekyll but was murdered by Mr. Hyde. It's a big budget, American-financed job starring Julia Roberts and John Malkovich, another complete shift.

Frears' ability to glide through cultures -- British, American, now Irish -- baffles him as well as it does his admirers.

"It does seem that I like other people's worlds more than my own," he says, somewhat puzzled by it all.

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