Film Studies: The best way to muddle along

I thought of a column on Stephen Frears when I saw the advertisement for the Fifth Keswick Film Festival. "The finest films in the splendour of the Lake District," it promised (with a Frears retrospective) - and then the dates, 13-15 February 2004, without so much as a nudge or a wink. I did consider whether the ad (in Sight and Sound) was just the wry-to-the-point-of-lugubrious Frears at his most characteristic: Dangerous Liaisons after lunch, and then a hike to watch the ice forming on some black tarn, with Dirty Pretty Things after a supper that made it past warm without ever reaching hot? Stephen Frears will be 63 this July, and as one who will reach that age a few months before he does, I realise how grievous and depressing the condition can be. For all I know, since the departures of Lindsay Anderson, John Schlesinger and Karel Reisz, there may even be some well-intentioned hippopotamus who declared that Frears was now our elder statesman of film. I believe that he recently yielded to an invitation to do Desert Island Discs, and you may ask what surer proof of senescence is there than that? But then you'd remember the direr possibility of yielding to invitations to become chairman of the British Film Institute. From which flows the certainty that something in Frears remains young, sparky and perverse enough to content himself with just Dirty Pretty Things and The Deal in 2003. I'm sure there were other things going on, but I speak of mere credits, of riveting up on the screen.

I'm not sure that Stephen Frears has ever had a plan. I think he sees himself as muddling along, utterly English yet very drawn to the fun of being in America and making a few American films, and more or less confident in this age of forgetfulness that hardly anyone (except the citizens of Keswick) grasp just what he has done, or managed, or got away with.

There is a quick, superficial way of knowing Stephen Frears. It says, of course, Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters and a few others, and comes up to date with the portrait of Blair in The Deal - so quick and chilling that you marvel at the Prime Minister wandering around alive, let alone conscious, afterwards. This is the man who remains fresh in his reputation as one of the most deft directors of anything in the world. This is a man so skilled, so versatile, and so innately bored that he might have been Howard Hawks in the old days of Hollywood. Please don't misunderstand me: "bored", I know, easily sounds like a put-down, but when a person is as fluent as Frears the boredom is actually a sublime protection, for it keeps him from doing the same old stuff that he knows he can do, standing on his head. There is a kind of bored person who stays very alert.

The man himself, Stephen Frears, has grown irritable in the past when I have said that Dangerous Liaisons might not be as good as Milos Forman's Valmont - so I will not say it again. But I insist on drawing to all your attention a little horror called Mary Reilly (in which Julia Roberts plays Dr Henry Jekyll's house maid) trashed by most critics and by film history, yet so alert it would make the hair stand up on a rat's back, and so good you are confirmed in all your suspicions about film criticism and film history.

I could delve deeper into the television career of Stephen Frears, when that was pretty much all an honest English film-maker could do: to Walter, a tragedy so piteous that only Channel 4 would have chosen it as its opening night offering, back in 1982; to Saigon - Year of the Cat, a dry love story between Judi Dench and Frederic Forrest as Vietnam came to a close; and even to A Day Out, a film I haven't seen since it came out in 1972, about a cycling club in Edwardian England - it's even possible that they were based in Keswick.

I don't know how anyone who cared enough could now track back across everything Stephen Frears did for British television. I'm not sure that not even his admirers fully comprehend the range - but more than that, the superb ease with which the range is covered - in his work.

I daresay he feels he has failed in America: Hero did badly; The Hi-Lo Country not much better; and even The Grifters stayed a critics' favourite. Well, just take a look at The Grifters: see the haggard severity in Anjelica Huston's work, and the astonishing bouncy sexuality in Annette Bening's every move. Neither actress has been as good in the decade since. But they haven't had Frears watching them.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

Fifth Keswick Film Festival: various venues, Keswick, Cumbria (01768 772398; www.keswickfilmclub.org), Friday to 15 February

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