Stephen Frears – Philomena (DVD)

April 15, 2014 by  
Filed under Interviews

In the critically-acclaimed 2013 drama “Philomena,” two-time Oscar-nominated director Stephen Frears (“The Grifters,” “The Queen”) tells the true-to-life story of Philomena Lee, a young Irish teenager forced to give her child up for adoption while under the care of a Catholic Church convent. Fifty years later, Philomena (Judi Dench) turns to British reporter Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) and asks him to help her locate her son and tell her incredible story.  The result was Sixsmith’s 2009 book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee,” which was adapted into an Oscar-nominated script by Coogan and screenwriter Jeff Pope.

During an interview with Frears, 72, we talked about how little directing he actually had to do when working with Dame Dench, his thoughts on taking creative license with a film like “Philomena” and touched a bit on his next project, an untitled film on disgraced American cyclist Lance Armstrong.

“Philomena” is available on DVD/Blu-ray April 15, 2014.

Judi Dench has stated in past interviews how much responsibility she felt to the real Philomena Lee in telling her story. Do you feel the same as a director when you take on a true-to-life project like this?

Yes, of course. I mean, it’s not the heaviest burden in the world, but yes. I don’t think you could make a film about a real person and not take on that responsibility.

How was telling her story different than, say, capturing a real person like Queen Elizabeth in “The Queen?” Do you handle the storytelling aspects in the same way?

I would imagine so. “The Queen” was slightly different because everybody knows how the story ends. You haven’t got that trick up your sleeve. You’re just telling a story.

You’ve worked with Judy before and with other amazing actresses in your career like Helen Mirren and Anjelica Huston. How much directing do you have to do with women of this caliber? Is more about standing back and watching them work?

It’s more about standing back and watching them work. They are very clever women. What you’re really trying to do is create a space where they can do their very fine work.

Because Philomena Lee’s story, at times, is incredibly heartbreaking, what were your initial thoughts when you learned Steve Coogan, who is known more for his comedy, had obtained the rights to Martin Sixsmith’s book?

That’s what I liked most about it. I could see the story was tragic and comic. The comic side of it, somehow, rounded out the whole thing.

What about some of the more serious aspects of the story like the issues with the Catholic Church? Did you want the film to feel like an indictment of the practices of the Church back then?

Listen, the Catholic Church is very, very easy to criticize. What I was more interested in was [Philomena’s] devoutness and faith. What I’ve been told is that there are worse things that happen [in the Catholic Church] than what we show.

How do you feel as a director when people refer to the film as propaganda? I mean, leaders in the Catholic Church have come out to admonish the film as anti-Catholic.

Well, I’m very, very keen on the Pope seeing the film. If I was the Pope, I think I would like this film very much. It seems to be saying what the Pope has been saying. [Note: In February 2014, a Vatican spokesperson made the following statement: “The Holy Father does not see films, and will not be seeing this one. It is also important to avoid using the Pope as part of a marketing strategy.” The Pope, however, did meet Philomena Lee at the Vatican during that same week.

Speaking of Pope Francis, he’s been making a lot of interesting comments and decisions during his short tenure as pontiff. Do you feel like he’s changing the Church’s image in a positive way?

I’m not a Catholic, so I don’t know a lot about it, but he’s seems like a very good man. Well done whoever elected him. And well done him.

Well, I’m sure you know that his comments on a lot of social issues have surprised a lot of Catholics since they go against the Church’s past stances on certain things like homosexuality and atheism.

I think that’s what the film talks about about, too. We do know someone from the Vatican has, in fact, seen [“Philomena”].

Did anything come out of that?

(Laughs) I don’t know. [The Catholic Church] doesn’t tell me their secrets.

I think the Pope would be open-minded enough to embrace the film.

That’s what I think. That’s what I’d hope.

Now, in the film, you don’t reference the convent Philomena is sent to as a Magdalene Laundry, but do you consider it one? If so, are these institutions something you researched for the film?

Not being Catholic, I am still sort of vague about what [a Magdalene Laundry] describes. A lot of Catholics worked on the film and I had a lot of Irish people in it. I was surrounded by people who knew a lot more than I did.

Talk about taking artistic license and the challenge it presents when making a true-to-life film. I mean, when you, Steve and Jeff decide to create something in the story solely for cinematic purposes, is that a difficult decision to make? Or is everything in the name of good entertainment?

You just know instinctively where the line is. I knew where it was in “The Queen.” There aren’t any rules, but you just think, “Well, that makes sense” or “That’s fair.” When I was making a film about [former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom] Tony Blair (2003’s made-for-British-TV film “The Deal”), I couldn’t really show his appalling behavior over [issues with] Iraq. It just wasn’t appropriate for the film. I thought his behavior over Iraq went very, very bad. So, I was bending over backwards to show him in a reasonable light.

It must have been easier with someone like author Martin Sixsmith on your side.

He was very kind and generous, yes. It was a very complicated narrative. At times I thought, “Well, I got away with that” or “Well, I just walked through a mind field,” but I seem to have survived.

You’re next film, of course, is the Lance Armstrong biopic. This past year, the documentary “The Armstrong Lie” came out as a sort of indictment of him and his career. How are you tackling this subject? Was it difficult to do it without turning him into an antagonist?

He’s made it quite easy for people to think of him [as an antagonist]. But, of course, he is a very complicated man. This isn’t a biopic. It’s an account of about 10 years of his life.

You made your first film in 1988 with “Dangerous Liaisons.” What have you learned about yourself as a director as you’ve maneuvered your way through the Hollywood industry over the last 25 years?

I’ve become more experienced. I must’ve loved something about it. I’ve learned how easy it is to make matters worse. The film industry has gotten harder; much tougher. I can’t believe I’m still making films.

Right, you’re still making great films, so why ever retire?

Well, firstly, it’s very hard work. Secondly, I depend on finding material that catches my imagination.

So, are you saying there are fewer and fewer of those inspiring scripts coming across your desk?

Well, at the moment I’m so exhausted I haven’t read anything. I’ve been very, very lucky with the films I’ve got to make. I’ve gotten very, very good scripts written by very, very good writers. And I’ve gotten good actors on top of that. But sometimes you just think, “Well, maybe now, my luck will run out.”

Actor Dustin Hoffman is going to be in your Lance Armstrong movie. You haven’t worked with him since your 1992 film “Hero.” That must’ve been an exciting reunion on the set.

Yeah, I worked with him for a few days just before this past Christmas. He’s a wonderful fellow and actor. It was very, very generous of him. I was very, very touched.

When you go back and work with someone like him after 20 years, does it feel like you picked up where you left off?

Yes, and we are both older and wiser. (Laughs) Or perhaps older and more foolish.

Philomena

November 29, 2013 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark
Directed by: Stephen Frears (“The Queen”)
Written by: Steve Coogan (“The Parole Office”) and Jeff Pope (“Essex Boys”)

It’s quite a treat to witness what an actress as highly regarded as Judi Dench can do with a lead role. There’s nothing particularly flashy Dench does on the screen that ever cries out for attention, but the transcending nature of her talent can sometimes be taken for granted. In “Philomena,” Dench, who will turn 79 early next month, proves that she is only getting better with age. Give actor/co-writer Steve Coogan all the credit in the world for complementing her performance beat for beat.

Based on the book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” written by former BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith, “Philomena” follows the title character (Dench) who reveals a secret to her daughter that she has been keeping for 50 years. As a pregnant teenager in Ireland in 1952, Philomena was sent to a convent where she was forced to give up her newborn son for adoption. Desperate to know what became of her child, she enlists the help of Sixsmith, a writer not all that interested in telling a human-interest sob story. When he meets and listens to Philomena’s tale, however, he immediately embraces it as his next writing project and the two set out to possibly reunite with her long-lost son.

Heartbreaking, sensitive and at times very funny, “Philomena” takes us on an incredible, full-circle journey and does it without one ounce of melodrama or false emotion. Flashbacks between the days a young Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) spends at the convent are nicely edited between the present-day narrative and never feel like they are being used as a simple storytelling tool. There’s content that demands attention on both ends of the spectrum and two-time Academy Award nominated director Stephen Frears (“The Queen”) does a fantastic job balancing everything without losing focus on his leading lady and what she is going through during this life-changing venture.

Script-wise, it’s easy to see where an actor like Coogan was able to contribute his dry wit and subtle British humor. Every line of dialogue between Philomena and Martin rings true. Nothing is overstated or overwritten and each scene is paced perfectly as if it were a soldier marking time. Then, of course, there’s Dench, who deserves a seventh Oscar nomination (she won Best Supporting Actress for “Shakespeare in Love”) for the work she’s done here, the best since 2006’s “Notes on a Scandal.” Giving “Philomena” motivation, endearing attributes and a positive outlook on life that far too few people have today, Dench is miraculous. With “Philomena,” she has given a character many would pass by without notice extraordinary depth and resonance.

Tamara Drewe

December 3, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Gemma Arterton, Roger Allam, Dominic Cooper
Directed by: Stephen Frears (“The Queen”)
Written by: Moira Buffini (debut)

Based on a series of newspaper comic strips, which were later used to create a graphic novel, “Tamara Drewe” proves to have a much more interesting personality when printed on paper than she does in an actual feature film. Despite actress Gemma Arterton (“Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time”) doing her best to draw us in with more than her short shorts, the title character reveals herself to be surprisingly unlikeable.

Tamara’s negative characteristics would not be completely intolerable if you can believe that is exactly what two-time Oscar nominated director Stephen Frears really wanted from this British farce. Unfortunately, it feels like somewhere in the translation from the page to the screen, first-time writer Moira Buffini loses touch with Tamara. Watching her jump from bed to bed, it probably was a little difficult to keep up.

In the film, Tamara, a frisky newspaper columinst, returns to the countryside town of Dorset, England where she grew up and causes a ruckus among the reclusive men of a writing retreat who are all spontaneously inspired by her presence. The men, including farm owner Nicholas (Roger Allam), who is already cheating on his wife Beth (Tasmin Greig), are smitten. Call Tamara a muse if you want, but she’s trouble any way you look at it.

While it might have been easy enough for Arterton to run away with the picture because of her initial charm, the most substance audiences will gather is within the writer’s retreat. Greig hasn’t received enough credit this year for her supporting role as a woman scorn. Bill Camp (“Public Enemies”) is also memorable as Glen McCreavy, a writer obsessed with novelist Thomas Hardy who wrote “Far from a Maddening Crowd,” which is actually the real-life inspiration for the original “Tamara Drewe” comic.
 
Still, once we leave the comfortable confides of the writer’s camp, “Tamara Drewe” spreads itself thin among a collection of characters better suited for blathering British TV. Tamara of “Tamara Drewe” might be easy on the eyes, but once she starts sharing awkwardly-written dialogue between lovers, it’s much easier to just tune out.

Chéri

June 26, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Michelle Pfeiffer, Rupert Friend, Kathy Bates
Directed by: Stephen Frears (‘The Queen”)
Written by: Christopher Hampton (“Atonement”)

If you thought the term “cougar” could only be used as a reference in pop culture to describe women like Demi Moore and Mariah Carey who pursue younger men, then the film “Chéri,” based on the novel by early 20th century French writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, proves you’re a few decades late.

Set in 1920s Paris during the belle époque era, “Chéri” follows Lea de Lonval (Michelle Pfeiffer), a well-to-do courtesan (a classy name for a swanky prostitute) who falls in love with an enchanting young man named Chéri (Rupert Friend, who looks like a gothic version of Orlando Bloom).

Chéri’s mother Madame Charlotte Peloux (Kathy Bates), a retired courtesan and former rival of Lea, allows the rendezvous to happen since she knows her son will be in good hands and obtain the sexual experience he needs before settling down. The affair would also help Lea keep her status as one of the most desired escorts in Paris.

But what is supposed to be a casual relationship for both Lea and Chéri turns out to be a lot more. Six years later, the couple is still together in what is described as a “soothing routine of habit.” Their love dissolves, however, when Charlotte forces him into an arranged marriage with a woman his own age since the Madame desperately wants grandchildren. While Lea knew the day would come when Chéri would leave the nest, she is devastated but hides her emotions well. “It’s her turn now,” she says to her young lover before letting him go.

Chéri, too, finds it hard to let go of his past the longer he stays in his dreary marriage. All he can think about is his time with Lea and eventually returns to her like a lost little boy. It’s during these scenes of self-pity and overall misery that make “Cheri” hard to bear after a while. It’s not enough that Pfeiffer gives a fine performance as this woman of a “certain age,” and that Bates steals most of the show with a vivacious personality, the era piece doesn’t capture the same romanticism as the last time director Stephan Frears and screenwriter Christopher Hampton collaborated for 1988’s “Dangerous Liaisons,” which earned Pfeiffer her first of three Academy Award nominations.

Pfeiffer shouldn’t be returning to the big dance this year, although stranger things have happened. “Chéri” is cinematically beautiful with all the pomp and circumstance it delivers in costume and setting. The story, however, feels like a cheap one-night stand rather than a daring love story and is not as overly tragic as it makes itself out to be.