Category: Stephen Frears

The Lost King (2022)

The Lost King (2022)

Bizarre, grudge-settling comedy-drama that celebrates amateurism and hates experts

Director: Stephen Frears

Cast: Sally Hawkins (Philippa Langley), Steve Coogan (John Langley), Harry Lloyd (Richard III), Mark Addy (Richard Buckley), Lee Ingleby (Richard Taylor), James Fleet (John Ashdown-Hill), Bruce Fummey (Hamish), Amanda Abbington (Shelia Lock)

In 2012 the world’s media descended on Leicester after the body of King Richard III was discovered in priory turned car park. Richard III had long had passionate supporters – Ricardians – who rejected the idea that the man Shakespeare turned into Britain’s most hated monarch was anything of the sort. It was one of those fans, Philippa Langley (Sally Hawkins), who researched for 20 years to find evidence for where he was buried and became the public face of the search through ratings-winning television documentaries and writing a best-selling book.

All of this is rejigged in a silly, sentimental, bizarre film that repositions Langley as an inspired amateur butting heads with the self-promoting professionals of Leicester University. I suppose there is something ironic in a film which insists someone had their reputation sullied in the name of drama, itself sullies peoples names in the name of drama. (Richard Taylor, the deputy registrar of Leicester, here portrayed as a sexist, elitest self-promoter who mocks the disabled, has openly declared his intention to sue). The Lost King wants to be an affectionate Ealingesque comedy of the triumph of the little guy. It’s actually got an uncomfortable feeling of grudges being settled and a stench of Brexity anti-intellectualism.

Fascinatingly the anti-intellectualism even extends to Langley herself. Remember that 20 years of research? All deleted in this film. Here Langley is a working mum, suffering from ME (the film draws vague parallels between this and Richard’s scoliosis) who one day stumbles into a performance of Richard III and basically falls in love with the dead king. She pops down to a second-hand bookshop, buys eight books on Richard and in a few months is digging up the car park. It’s as if the idea she spent time in archives, triple checking sources, studying maps etc. would somehow have been “cheating” – that we could only root for her if she was an amateur, “one of us” who makes her (always correct) decisions purely on gut instinct.

But it fits with a film that portrays Leicester University as a sort of scheming club of middle-managers and moustachio-curling villains. No one from the university can so much as draw breath without disparaging “that woman” as an obsessive weirdo. They batter everyone with their expertise, arrogantly dismiss any ideas they don’t have themselves and stand around growling so Langley can puncture their pretention with her common-sense wisdom. Case in point: she suggests they overlay a modern map of Leicester over a medieval map to check locations. First they object, then look at her like she’s split the atom. Of course, they are right to object: medieval maps are hand-drawn approximations often more based on aesthetics than accuracy. But that doesn’t matter to the film, which of course immediately shows the two maps lining up in microscopic detail. If only 500 years’ worth of scholars could have thought of that, eh?

Embodied by Lee Ingleby’s Richard Taylor as a number-crunching obstructive bureaucrat who does everything he can to steal the credit (honestly, if you are going to take this kind of pop at a regular person at least change his name), Leicester University are unilaterally baddies. All this score-settling seems to have come from Langley’s resentment at not being invited to speak at a couple of press conferences. No matter that TV documentaries and books made her name synonymous with Richard III to anyone who really cares (even the film can’t pretend it’s telling “an untold true story”). This is a film with an axe to grind – so much so that the eventual discovery of Richard becomes secondary to this mud-slinging as Langley rebukes Taylor publicly (inevitably shaming him into silence) for equating disability with wickedness and cutting her out of meetings.

What’s particularly odd about The Lost King is that the film ends up painting Langley as exactly the kind of un-credible crank its villains (villainously) see her as. Having removed all her rigorous research, it replaces it with Having A Feeling. This is communicated visually with Langley communing regularly with a vision of Richard III, personified by the actor from the play she saw. Langley chats to this vision with the breathless excitement of a giddy teenager, and he helps her discover reams of facts, not least a bizarre moment of ecstasy when she spots an “R” in the car park and just knows Richard is under there.

Harry Lloyd is all adrift in this bizarre part and its main impact is to raise unfortunate giggles and make Langley look exactly like the sort of person you wouldn’t invest tens of thousands of pounds in. Mind you, Langley here is way more competent than any other Ricardian society member, all of whom are portrayed as cranks and pub bores, talking as if they only discovered famous primary sources this week, and utterly unable to even tie their own shoelaces until Langley sails in and discovers the king’s body in about ten minutes.

Hawkins plays a part firmly in her wheel-house, as an eccentric but determined woman in love with a ghost, while co-scriptwriter Steve Coogan generously writes himself a “stop reading Holinshed and look after the kids” role as her supportive ex-husband. Langley, like other characters, bends and changes according to the needs of the scene but is always the hero. When the script needs her to be a determined leader, she won’t take no for an answer. When it needs her to be oppressed by those nasty Leicester professionals, she won’t say boo to a goose. (Similarly, Mark Addy’s archaeologist yo-yos between dismissive of Langley to affectionately supportive almost scene-to-scene.)

The Lost King wants to be a triumphal little-guy film, but actually it has an unpleasant air to it. It feels like a massive grudge being publicly settled. It belittles and ignores expertise, patience and research in favour of gut instinct and amateurism. It bizarrely paints its lead character as a mixture of oddball weirdo, genius and saintly crusader. It’s also neither dramatic nor funny (except accidentally). It’s a bad film.

Victoria and Abdul (2017)

Victoria and Abdul
Judi Dench and Ali Fazal forge an unlikely friendship in the tame heritage flick Victoria and Abdul

Director: Stephen Frears

Cast: Judi Dench (Queen Victoria), Ali Fazal (Abdul Karim), Tim Pigott-Smith (Sir Henry Ponsonby), Eddie Izzard (Prince Albert), Adeel Akhtar (Mohammad Bakhsh), Michael Gambon (Lord Salisbury), Paul Higgins (Dr James Reid), Olivia Williams (Baroness Spencer), Fenella Woolgar (Harriet Phipps), Robin Soans (Lord Stamfordham), Simon Callow (Giacomo Puccini)

In the last decade of her life, Queen Victoria (Judi Dench – who else?) makes an Indian servant, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), one of her closest friends and advisors. As Victoria and Abdul become closer, the rest of the court are outraged – bad enough that the Queen is spending all this time with an over-promoted servant, but an Indian as well?!

The fundamental events of Victoria & Abdul are true. There was a man called Abdul Karim – and Victoria did raise him from servant to a confidant. He did cause conflict in the royal household and was finally sent back to India after her death, after surrendering most of his papers. But Victoria & Abdul repackages this friendship into a cosy, Sunday-afternoon entertainment, bereft of depth. And carefully works on the rough surfaces to make the story smooth and easy to digest.

The film is clearly trying to ape the success of Mrs Brown – a far more intelligent and emotionally complex (if similarly heritage) film that looked at Victoria’s previous all-consuming friendship with a male servant, John Brown. But that film didn’t close its eyes to the negatives of such relationships, as this one does. It made clear royal attention can be fickle – and being elevated above others can help make you your own worst enemy. In that film, after a honeymoon, the friendship declines into one of residual loyalty but reduced affection. It’s a realistic look at how we might lean on someone at times of grief, but separate ourselves from them later. Victoria & Abdul takes only one lesson from Mrs Brown: that a close bond between monarch and commoner is heart-warming.

The film in general is in love with the idea that if the Queen could only speak directly to her people, the world would be a better place. It presents a Victoria stifled by court procedure who knows very little about her empire and is constrained by the courtiers around her. It wants us to think that if the Queen took direct rule, she’d be kinder, wiser and more humane. That this figurehead symbol could craft a better British Empire if she was an absolute monarch.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. This romantic view of “Victoria the Good” is comforting stuff, but undermined even within the film by our introduction to the Queen at a royal dinner, where Victoria stuffs food down herself so quickly that mountains of untouched food goes uneaten on the plates of the other diners (as all plates are removed the moment she is finished). And despite being told that the Koh-i-noor diamond was stolen by the British (to her surprise), she still doesn’t think twice about wearing it later in the film while in the midst of her Indian passion. And while the real Victoria loathed the racist attitudes of some at her court, she still clearly sees herself as a paternalistic mother figure for India, which could of course never be able to make its own decisions about things.

Not that the film is interested in tackling more complex ideas of the position of India and its independence. It’s similarly confused by Abdul himself. In a more interesting film, Abdul would have been partly naïve servant and partly charming rogue. He very carefully spins an invented story of himself as a teacher and thinker (he’s actually a clerk from a fabric office) and it would have been interesting to see his building of a relationship with Victoria at least partly being based on self-gain. He certainly gains an awful lot from her – from his own carriage on her train to a home and his own servants. It would have been possible to have this side of him and still have his loyalty and friendship to the Queen being genuine. But it’s too much for the film to tackle.

An Abdul who was consciously playing a role of exotic thinker might have come across as a scam-artist – but would have given the film a lot more to play with, when the royal court is full of people positioning and presenting themselves for influence. Adeel Ahktar’s fellow-servant Mohammed even suggests in one scene that this is what Abdul is doing – and good luck to him. But the film is scared that this could be seen as endorsing the court’s fears about Abdul. So the character is neutered into nothing: he becomes exactly the sort of empty “exotic”, free of opinion and character, that filled out the extras list of a 1940s epic. He has no agency, never makes any decision or expresses any opinion. And his feelings for Victoria are presented as totally genuine which, combined with his foot kissing, turns him into someone who looks and feels really servile.

This is because the film wants to tell the story of a perfect friendship, with the British upper classes as the hissable baddies (never mind that no one is more upper class than Victoria). Never mind that Abdul’s action will indirectly condemn Mohammed to death in the British climate – or that while Abdul rises, Mohammed becomes his servant, still consigned to sleeping on the floor of his railway carriage. We learn nothing about Abdul. How did this clean-living saint become riddled with the clap? Why did he die so young? Did he really think nothing of the riches and honours Victoria showered him with? We don’t have a clue.

Instead the film keeps it simple with goodies (Victoria and Abdul) and baddies (almost everyone else). The most politically astute character, Mohammed, disappears and never allows things to get unpleasant. Jokes of the courtiers standing around aghast saying things like “Now he’s teaching her Urdu” are repeated multiple times. They’re fun, but it substitutes for dealing with the real issues.

It all has the air of ticking boxes. Frears’ direction is brisk, efficient and free of personality. Dench is great, but she could play this role standing on her head while asleep. Pigott-Smith (in his final role) is fine but Farzal has nothing to work with and Izzard provides a laughable pantomime role of lip-smacking villainy as the future Edward VII. The finest performance – handling the most interesting material – is from Ahktar. He’s the only character who seems to place what we see here in any form of context. Other than that, this film is just a string of very comforting heritage ideas, thrown together with professionalism but a total lack of inspiration.

The Program (2015)

Ben Foster is the disgraced Lance Armstrong in this functional but insight free biopic The Program

Director: Stephen Frears

Cast: Ben Foster (Lance Armstrong), Chris O’Dowd (David Walsh), Jesse Plemons (Floyd Landis), Lee Pace (Bill Stapleton), Guillaume Canet (Michele Ferrari), Denis Menochet (Johan Bruyneel), Dustin Hoffman (Bob Hamman), Edward Hogg (Frankie Andreu), Elaine Cassidy (Betsy Andreu), Laura Donnelly (Emma O’Reilly), Sam Hoare (Stephen Stewart)

In sports there has probably never been an icon who fell so far as Lance Armstrong. Stephen Frears’ film reconstructs the story of Armstrong’s – played by Ben Foster – career, from finding his natural build and ability isn’t enough to win the Tour de France, through cancer diagnosis and recovery and then into his record-breaking run of Tour victories, all achieved off the back of running a comprehensive and professional doping system, and his final fall from grace.

Frears’ film is well-made and stylish and good at capturing the freedom and excitement of professional cycle racing. It’s also a skilled reconstruction of its time period, and a fairly well structured chronicle of events, which it reconstructs from journalist David Walsh’s (played here with a fine sense of moral outrage by Chris O’Dowd) book Seven Deadly Sins. Walsh had written stories for several years questioning Armstrong’s achievements, and Frears’ film puts together the events and testimonies that convince Walsh of Armstrong’s cheating with a documentarian skill.

Where the film fails though is its lack of drama and, crucially, its willingness to use dramatic and creative licence to attempt an exploration of Armstrong’s personality. What drove this cancer survivor to abuse his body with a parade of substances? How did Armstrong balance his passionate campaigning for a cure for a cancer with the lie he was presenting the world of how he didn’t just recover from cancer, he used it as a springboard to become the greatest endurance athlete in the world? Basically, what the film doesn’t really try to do, is get inside the head of its lead character.

Instead, the film follows its title: The Program. There is greater interest in the how of this cheating regime, not the why. Now perhaps in real life Armstrong is the shallow, narcissistic bully he often seems here, obsessed with winning at all costs with no moral quandaries at all. But it hardly makes for entertaining or satisfying drama. Foster is a brilliant physical match – and he captures the ruthless forward-drive of Armstrong very well – but this is a film that doesn’t really scratch the surface of what made Armstrong. We never get a sense of his motivations – or really his reactions as the world tumbles around him.

There is a fascinating story to tell here, but it’s almost as if the film is worried about giving this sinner some feet of clay we can sympathise with (to mix a few metaphors). Instead Armstrong is all chilled front and nothing underneath, and his villainy is so central from day one that we get neither a satisfying sense of a hypocrite unmasked nor of a Promethean fall from grace. 

Actually, Frears may well have been more interested in making a film where Jesse Plemons’ Floyd Landis was a central character – the devout Christian persuaded to take part in the doping scheme, who becomes Armstrong’s successor only to be immediately discredited in a way Armstrong would not be for years. It’s the tragedy of Landis that really has dramatic potential – a decent man who is well aware what he is doing is wrong, but is too weak to not accept the easy path to glory. It’s this story that has real dramatic potential – and might well have made a better focus for the movie.

The Program isn’t a bad film. It captures the drama of its sport well, and it brings together the events that led to Armstrong’s fall with professional skill. But it’s more of documentary than a drama and to be honest there isn’t much in it that couldn’t be picked up better from actually reading Walsh’s book. There was a lot of potential here – but it needed a film more willing to explore and understand its central character rather than just condemn him as a monster and move on.

Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

Glenn Close and John Malkovich play games of lust and sex in Dangerous Liaisons

Director: Stephen Frears

Cast: Glenn Close (Marquise Isabelle du Merteuil), John Malkovich (Vicomte Sébastian de Valmont), Michelle Pfeiffer (Madame Marie du Tourvel), Uma Thurman (Cécile de Volanges), Swoosie Kurtz (Madame de Volanges), Keanu Reeves (Raphael Danceny), Mildred Natwick (Madame du Rosemonde), Peter Capaldi (Azolan), Valerie Gogan (Julie)

Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos Les liaisons Dangereuses had been a stunning success in the West End and on Broadway – so a film adaptation of this lusciously set story of sex was inevitable. Stephen Frears’ film keeps the story grounded in its setting of pre-Revolutionary France, but deliberately encourages a modern looseness, even archness, from its actors that makes it feel grounded and modern.

The Marquise du Merteuil (Glenn Close) and Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich) are two French aristocrats who fill their time with seductions and sexual manipulation of other people, while conducting a dance of attraction around each other. Du Mertuil wants revenge against her ex-lover by getting Valmont to seduce the lover’s innocent intended bride Cécile de Volanges (Uma Thurman). But Valmont is more interested in setting himself the challenge of seducing the unimpeachable Madame du Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer) – du Merteuil so convinced the task will be impossible that she bets him if he seduces du Tourvel, she will sleep with him as well. These games of sexual manipulation develop with disastrous consequences for all involved, as unexpectedly real emotions of love and affection intrude on the heartlessness and contempt.

Frears’ film won three Oscars for its most striking elements: production design, costumes and Hampton’s script. Hampton’s script provides a series of striking scenes and tongue-lashing dialogue for its stars. Meanwhile the film looks marvellous, it’s use of French locations superb in creating the world of decadence that these characters move in, while the costumes are so strikingly, elaborately intricate they practically become characters themselves. The film opens and closes with scenes of dressing and de-dressing: the opening sequence shows Merteuil and Valmont being dressed in their elaborate finery, a sequence uncannily reminiscent of knights being dressed for war, ending with shots of their defiantly cold faces starring down the lens. The film bookends this with the film’s key survivor, brokenly wiping away from their made-up “public face” probably forever. It’s a film that uses the intricacy of the period, to strongly suggest modern, dynamic tones and emotions. 

The film is shot with a series of tight shots, intermixed with the odd long shot, that is designed to bring us in close with the film’s serial seductions and envy-powered clashes. This brings us straight into the middle of the events, giving them an immediacy and suddenness that makes this feel like anything but a traditional costume drama. Seductions have a steamy immediacy, while the growing moments of tension in the relationship between Mertuil and Valmont is similarly bought in close to us, to allow us to see the mix of emotions these two have for each other – both a deeply, unexpressed, love and a strange sense of loathing linked together with a possessive jealousy.

Frears makes marvellous use of mirrors in the film. These reflective surfaces appear in multiple shots and frequently expand the world, mirrors reflecting characters as others discuss them, or forcing into shot (usually between two other characters) the subject of conversations. They reveal (to the viewers) eavesdroppers hiding and, in one striking shot, as Valmont and Mertuil’s latest lover argue she is framed in reflection hanging above them on the wall mirror. There’s a reason why one of the film’s final sequences revolves around the smashing of a mirror in grief. 

The film’s modernism also stems from its use of very modern American actors – apeing the success of Milos Forman’s Amadeus – with everyone using their own accents. Glenn Close is superb as Mertueil, a woman projecting a cold, manipulative authority but does so to suppress and hide her own emotional vulnerability. Mertueil has convinced herself that she is a champion of her sex, but her every action seems to be motivated by finding indiscriminate revenge on all those who have found the sort of happiness she has been denied (or denied herself). Close lets little moments – wonderfully captured by the intimacy of Frears’ camerawork – where moments of micro-emotions and pain flash briefly across her face, only to be wiped away.

Malkovich is an unusual choice as Valmont – and his serpentine swagger and arch mannered style at first feels quite a disconnect with a character renowned as the most successful lover in France. But Malkovich’s eccentricity, his very oddity, in a way makes him believable as a man women would find intriguingly irresistible. Malkovich, while naturally perfect for the coldness of the character, is also highly skilled at expressing the slow, non-continuous growth of conscience and feeling in Valmont, as his feelings for Tourvel dance an uncertain line between manipulation and genuine feeling – and while his confused feelings for Mertuil alternate from possessive devotion to revulsion.

The whole cast respond well to Frears guidance, and his ability to draw relaxed performances from an odd selection of actors. Michelle Pfeiffer is particularly fine in a role that on paper could be very dull – the perfect, kind woman – but which she invest with such a seam of emotional truth and longing for deeper connections, combined with naked emotional honesty that she becomes the most compelling character in the film. Uma Thuman is very good as a naïve young girl, Kurtz and Natwick suitably arch as society bigwigs, Peter Capaldi creepily willing as a manipulative servant and even Keanu Reeves has a certain sweetness about him, even if he is at the height of his “Woah” dudeness.

The film’s principle problem is perhaps the very archness and coldness that makes it affecting. While it’s intriguing and intelligent, it is never perhaps as engaging as it should be and its characters are so jet-black, deceitful and cruel that it becomes hard at points to really invest in this chilling story of unpleasant people using other unpleasant people and manipulating innocent ones. It becomes a film easier to admire, perhaps carrying too much of the freezing chill of imperial French greed and selfishness. Come the denoument for all the skill it is played with the actors, it is hard to feel your emotions invested or your heart moved by any of the fates of the characters. Perhaps, in presenting a heartless world of selfishness and lies, it does its job too well.

The Queen (2006)

Helen Mirren reigns supreme as her Majesty in The Queen

Director: Stephen Frears

Cast: Helen Mirren (Queen Elizabeth II), Michael Sheen (Tony Blair), James Cromwell (Prince Philip), Helen McCrory (Cherie Blair), Alex Jennings (Prince Charles), Roger Allam (Robin Janvin), Sylvia Syms (Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother), Tim McMullan (Stephen Lamport), Mark Bazeley (Alistair Campbell), Julian Firth (Jonathan Powell)

It’s easy to assume The Queen is a cozy piece of film-making, not least because writer Peter Morgan’s exploration of the Royal Family has become every one’s favourite costume drama viewing thanks to his series The Crown on Netflix. But that’s to forget the acute sense of the personal and the public Morgan has, and his ability to write himself into the minds of his participants. And he’s perfectly matched here with the wry eye of Stephen Frears. Together they create a film that uses a single moment of history to explore the nature of our institutions and the particular characters of the people that fill them.

The film follows the death and aftermath of Princess Diana, and especially the dramatic public reaction to the death that expressed itself both in unparalleled scenes of national public mourning and hostility to the Royal family. Both are things a lifetime of duty and service have failed to prepare Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) for – but are also things intrinsically understood by her new Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen). As the public clamour for the Royals to join the public in an exhibition of public grief rises, it’s mixed with a furious demand for a royal ‘mea culpa’ for ruining the life of the “People’s Princess”. Could the Royal Family be finished?

Well of course it wasn’t, and perhaps it’s hard to understand for those who didn’t live through those crazy days of 1997. But there was never anything like it before – people wept in the streets as if they had lost a family member of their own. Princess Diana – a tireless campaigner for charities, who did a great deal to change public perceptions on AIDS among many other issues – was also a brilliant master of public opinion, far more attuned to the countries drift away from stiff-upper-lip reticence towards celebrity-worship sentimentality than the family she married into. As skilful a manipulator of the press, as she was a victim of their hounding, she’d made herself into someone larger than life. It’s the sort of modern cult of celebrity, that few others mastered – and certainly not in the Royal Family.

Diana hangs over the family in the film like a ghost, an embodiment of their sense that the country is drifting away from them. It’s a film where pace and speed are vital, Frears and Morgan brilliantly contrasting the rushing onslaught of events from the car crash to distraught, increasingly angry, crowds gathering outside Buckingham Palace with the relatively sedate official response, which was effectively a private retreat to Scotland and say and do very little. The film has a brilliant sense of the momentum of those crazy days, and of the clash between an institution straitjacketed by tradition and a world where the public exhibition of emotion is de rigour.

What the film finds however is the value in both, and in doing so perhaps becomes one of the greatest adverts for the monarchy – or at the very least for Elizabeth II – you will ever see. A lot of this comes from Helen Mirren superb performance as the Queen. It’s a role Mirren performs with a combination of Sphinx-like genius and a genuine fragility under a veneer of exactitude. Mirren’s Elizabeth is a woman whose sense of duty has led to a lifetime of living as a symbol, a profession that has demanded the avoidance of any sort of personal opinion what-so-ever (something Morgan leans on with his Alan Bennettish early scene, where the Queen chats with a maid about the recent General Election and regrets she never had the chance to tick a box for something). She’s a woman certain that she has performed her duty in the finest tradition of her family.

Her tragedy in the film is the bewildered sense of suddenly finding the country she thought she knew being completely different. Put simply, the destructive Diana, a difficult person privately but loved publically, is a woman she can’t understand – and a country that embraces her is one she struggles to understand as well. Mirren’s Queen has a sharply defined sense of her place and person, but finds herself questioning all that. While sharply refusing to be treated as fool, she has a distressed sense of suddenly being adrift in the world.

Morgan captures all this in a series of engaging “behind the scenes” moments, but his real trick is his sure touch with symbology. A magnificent stag on the grounds, being hunted by all and sundry, could easily have been a clumsy parallel with the Queen, but it’s delivered with real grace and serves as a true emotional catalyst for the Queen (twice!) as she finally begins to understand both her own situation, and the necessity for her to bend her own firm principles and tradition to meet the requirements of this new age.

It’s the main theme of the film, this conflict between tradition and modernism, but the film sees merit in both. Many of the formalities of court life are humoursly spoofed in their intricate pomposity, but the overblown sentimentalism and knee-jerk judgamentalism of the modern world are hardly much better. As Blair himself, the arch modernist, observes there will always be a place for a head of state who gives us a symbol to aspire to. Not least, because the burden of standing for things and being driven to play to the masses will eventually lead to the destruction of most political careers (the film mines a fair bit of material between the implicit comparison of Blair’s saint-like popularity in 1997 to the wreckage of his “Bliar” reputation in 2006).

Frear’s film is a gentle critique but also a sharp defence of the institution of the monarchy, as practiced by the Queen. It may pain her, but she will get on with it. Morgan’s script also suggests her quiet wisdom – the film’s coda has her suggesting that Diana, like all things popular today, will pass. 

The film is less sure footed elsewhere. It’s portrayal of New Labour at times leans a bit too heavily into public perception – Campbell (played by a bullying Mark Bazaely) as a brash blow-hard, Labour as being obsessed with spin and image, Cherie Blair as a judgemental Shrew. Other members of the Royal family sometimes bend into parody – by the time of the Crown, Peter Morgan was to find Prince Philip as a far more fascinating and richer character than he is here. But the performances are strong across the board, as if following their head of state in Mirren. Sheen’s re-creation of Blair is pitch perfect, and he also aptly understands the difficult balance in Blair between genuine decency and ambition. Roger Allam also provides a wonderfully dry cameo as the Queen’s old fashioned secretary, while Alex Jennings does a neat impersonation of a Charles desperate to be seen to be doing the right thing.

The Queen’s main interest though is showing that tradition and modernism can sit side-by-side – and that a leaning too far in either direction is harmful for all involved. It sprinkles in intriguing levels of criticism for Diana, but matches that with a respect for the Queen, that makes her real while keeping her a symbol. Helen Mirren’s performance deserved every price going, and the film itself rewards with each new viewing.

Philomena (2013)

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan go on a road trip into the past in Philomena

Director: Stephen Frears

Cast: Judi Dench (Philomena Lee), Steve Coogan (Martin Sixsmith), Michelle Fairley (Sally Mitchell), Barbara Jefford (Sister Hildegarde), Anna Maxwell Martin (Jane), Mare Winningham (Mare), Sophie Kennedy Clarke (Young Philomena), Kate Fleetwood (Young Sister Hildegarde), Sean Mahon (Michael Hess), Peter Hermann (Pete Olsen)

Describing Philomena as a sort of odd-couple buddy road movie with a heart seems like exactly the sort of trite journalistic spin that Coogan’s Martin Sixsmith spends most of the film deriding. But it’s a pretty accurate label, in this heartfelt and entertaining film that mixes looking at Irish church scandals, with both the shallowness and promise of journalism and a heartfelt meditation on the virtues of forgiveness.

Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a former government spin doctor, dismissed from his position is struggling to find a new purpose for himself in writing and journalism. After a chance meeting with waitress Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin) at his editor’s New Year party, he is introduced to her mother Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) an Irish woman whose son was given up for adoption by the convent Philomena had been sent to over 50 years ago. She has spent years trying to find him, but made no progress. At first Sixsmith is dismissive of this human interest story, but slowly begins to invest in the story, as he and Philomena travel to the US to try and find her lost son.

Philomena is a film that doesn’t pull punches in its moral outrage at the decisions made by convents in Ireland in the 1950s to separate ‘sinful’ mothers from their children and find them new homes. The distress of the young Philomena is clear, and the steps the church took to put barriers in the path of helping these children and their parents reuniting (from burning records to bare-faced lies) are as infuriating as their moral superiority is outrageous in its hypocritical cruelty. But it’s not a film that wants to make a simple or political point. 

If the film has a problem with religion, it’s with the institutions that run it, not the faith itself. For all her ill-treatment, Philomena’s faith has been unshaken by all that has happened to her, and she like the film can separate the flaws of individuals from the principle of faith. The film may take aim at the Catholic church for making people feel sex is something dirty and shameful, but it won’t turn its guns on God himself. Near the film’s conclusion, Philomena even rebukes Martin for his rage (on her behalf) against the nuns who treated her wrongly, pointing out that she is the victim not him and that how she chooses to respond to it is her business – and if she chooses reconciliation and forgiveness that is her choice.

It’s a part of the films light and shade, very well drawn out in Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope’s script that mixes serious reflections on such matters as truth, faith and forgiveness with some good jokes and entertaining banter. The film deviates considerably from the true story it was based on – Philomena in real life never went to America – but in doing so it unlocks the story as a filmic narrative. The odd mother-son type relationship that the distant and cynical Sixsmith and the warm and engaging Philomena develop as they travel America gives the film heart, not least as Philomena constantly surprises Sixsmith with her worldliness and socially moderate views. The two characters end up bonding in a way that is straight out of a Movie-101 but it stills very real and touching.

A lot of that works so well because of the chemistry between the two leads. Judi Dench is just about perfect as Philomena. Dench expertly mixes the twinkle and charm of Philomena’s incessant Irish patter and capacity for small-talk (and fascination with everything from Mills and Boon to hotel toiletry) with a devastating emotional vulnerability and aching pain at the loss of her child, which has clearly been part of her life for so long she has learned to a certain degree to live with it. In one of her greatest screen performances, Dench will have you laughing one minute then spin on a sixpence with genuine emotional devastation or a capacity for forgiveness and reconciliation that seems impossible after what she has been through. The film builds real affection for both her old-world politeness charm and Irish loquaciousness and her emotional strength of character.

She’s well matched with Coogan, who uses his deadpan archness to excellent effect as Sixsmith. Although the film is called Philomena, it’s Sixsmith who represents the audience, and it’s his expectation of being emotionally manipulated by the story that we share at the start – and his growing investment in it that we also share. Coogan keeps the details very small, but along with a skill at delivering deadpan one-lines, he also has a considerable capacity for moral outrage and genuineness (well hidden) that serves the film very well. Sixsmith starts the story as self-pitying, supercilious and interested only in selling the story – the fact he ends it so bound up in rage at the treatment of Philomena, is a testament to Coogan’s skills for subtle character development.

Frears’ directs with a small-scale sharpness of camera and lack of flash that has been at the foreground of so many of his films, letting the focus lie on story and character. The road movie sequences that this film highlights so much are little triumphs of small-scale character story-telling, and while the jokes they feature – and even the emotional points they make – are familiar they are delivered with such grace and feeling they nearly all land.

Perhaps reflecting Coogan’s experience with the British media, it’s Fleet Street that emerges as the most 2D here, with Michelle Fairley playing a tabloid editor interested only in the story, delighting in tragic twists as they will make for even better headlines. It’s the film’s only real crudeness, but packaged within such a well-acted and richly entertaining whole, that makes a strong case for forgiveness not vindication being the true path to inner peace, it doesn’t seem to matter.

Gumshoe (1971)

Fulton Mackay and Albert Finney in charming Liverpool set Chandler spoof Gumshoe

Director: Stephen Frears

Cast: Albert Finney (Eddie Ginley), Billie Whitelaw (Ellen Ginley), Frank Finlay (William Ginley), Janice Rule (Mrs Blankerscoon), Carolyn Seymour (Alison), Fulton Mackay (Straker), George Innes (De Fries), Billy Dean (Tommy), Wendy Richard (Anne Scott), Maureen Lipman (Naomi)

Film noir is a genre beloved by many, and – with its many conventions and, in particular, its hard-boiled Chanderlesque style – it’s also ripe for parody. That’s what Gumshoe does here, transplanting the rough, grimy mysteries of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade to Liverpool in the 1970s. In doing so, it allows Albert Finney to let rip with the sort of hugely enjoyable personality performance that plays to his strengths.

Finney plays Eddie Ginley, a would-be comedian and entertainer in his thirties, obsessed with Chandler and Hammett. Placing an advert in the paper offering his services for private investigations in the spirit of a lark, he finds himself hired to look into a decidedly complex affair concerning a female lecturer, a fat South African, an occult bookshop, an unhappy South African political refugee and quite possibly his brother William (Frank Finlay) and his old flame and now sister-in-law Ellen (Billie Whitelaw).

Gumshoe is a an enjoyable, small-scale, cine-literate drama, with a playful script by Neville Smith that has a wonderful ear both for the style of Hollywood detective drama, and the streets of Liverpool – and knows how to mix them together. Shot simply by Stephen Frears (who rather sweetly claims on the blu-ray documentary to not have had a clue what he was doing), the film rattles along with a few good jokes, some decent set-ups and an actually rather good mystery. It largely falls just the right side of parody – not too smarmy, affectionate enough but never taking itself too seriously. It’s a very well judged pastiche – and it’s also a pretty damn good mystery itself.

The film was somewhat of a passion project for Albert Finney (his production company put up much of the funding).  And you can see why, as Finney is excellent – relaxed, smart and funny. Eddie Ginley is part dreamer, part realist trying not to see the truth around him. He knows this world of detecting is partly a game, partly dangerous, partly a fantasy – but he wants to enjoy while it he can. Finney also clearly enjoys the sort of Marlowesque dialogue, just as he gives real emotional depth to a man who has always been looked down on by his brother, and jilted by his girlfriend for said brother. It’s one of his best performances, he’s outstanding – a charming, playful, warm and also super-smart and cunning performance.

The rest of the film gives playful highlight moments for a number of performers, wrapped up in the enjoyment of the material. Finlay does a decent job as a stuffed-shirt straight man, Billie Whitelaw enjoys a sly parody of any number of femme fatales from 1940s movies, and Janice Rule is intimidating as a very different type of suspicious female. The best supporting performance however comes from Fulton Mackay as a brusque but wry Scottish hitman, tailing Ginley throughout the film to reclaim money he feels is owed to him. 

It’s a shame that a fun, playful and engaging film has in some places dated so badly. Not least in its language aimed at a black heavy Ginley gets into a scrap with. Intimidated and off-guard, Ginley falls back onto banter aimed to put the heavy off balance – but which listened to today is basically a string of vile racial slurs using words like jungle, bananas, trees etc. etc. etc. And the attitudes are repeated time and again in the film, with the character constantly referred to in the most derogatory and racialist terms. Mind you at least Oscar James as the butt of this gets a neat dig at Ginley hardly being “the Great White Hope” after a brief bout of fisitcuffs.

It’s an interesting sign of how dated the film is that the villains are racist apartheid South Africans, Finney was at the time a leading campaigner against Apartheid, but neither he nor the film clearly  put calling a black man a monkey into the same bracket as that bigoted system. No one involved really is a racist, not even the characters – it just wasn’t deemed a problem to say those things in the 1970s. (Even the booklet in Indicator’s excellent blu-ray dwells on this uncomfortable dated material).

But, bench that from your mind, and you’ve got a charming, fun pastiche that pokes a lot of fun at Bogart and Chandler. The make-believe fun of Eddie’s Marlowesque hard-boiled dialogue is constantly punctured by him having to explain what he’s trying to say. The film has a lot of fun with the details of a mystery, but still keeps that smart sense of tongue-in-cheek. It’s packed with some excellent lines and some sharp performances. Finney is superb. It’s a pastiche and an affectionate homage of a whole genre – and, although it is old-fashioned and feels a bit dated, it will I think stand up to re-watching.