Archive for the ‘Stephen Frears’ Category

The Banquet of Infinity

Victoria & Abdul

Director: Stephen Frears

Cast: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Olivia Williams, Tim Piggott-Smith, Michael Gambon, Eddie Izzard, Julian Wadham, Simon Callow, Paul Higgins

The unlikely friendship of Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim, a Muslim clerk from Agra who is sent to England from Colonial India to present a special coin to her majesty is the subject of a sumptuous and shrewdly observed film by veteran director Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, The Queen, Philomena).

Victoria and Abdul has to be viewed in conjunction with the 1997 John Madden film Mrs Brown also starring Oscar winner Judi Dench (Shakespeare in Love) as the grand old queen which in that film follows her widow like infatuation with the Scottish highlander John Brown played by Billy Connolly.

The British director of Florence Foster Jenkins makes a clever narrative choice in telling the story from Abdul’s perspective, as he goes on a fascinating journey into the heart of the English court with its strange pomposity and royal etiquette.

Abdul is expertly played by Indian actor Ali Fazal (Fast and Furious 7), who is handsome, devoted and downright smitten with this cantankerous monarch who sees him as a beautiful embodiment of all that is exotic about the vast subcontinent that was 19th century colonial India, a country that ironically Queen Victoria was never allowed to visit for fear of being assassinated.

Victoria, much to the horror of her conservative retinue of court staff and advisors, takes a shine to the bold and outspoken Abdul and requests that he become her munchee, her teacher on all things Indian from delicacies like mangoes to religious and cultural practices. A pertinent request considering that at the time, 19th century India was ruled by England when its rapid colonial expansion globally allowed Queen Victoria to bizarrely assume the title of Empress of India even though she had never set foot on the distant sub-continent.

As the friendship between Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim blossoms at first comically and later as a form of emotional attachment, it becomes the source of anticipated ridicule from her own son Bertie, the Prince of Wales played with suitable arrogance by Eddie Izzard as well as the British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury wonderfully played by Michael Gambon (Brideshead Revisited).

In one of the best lines of the film Lord Salisbury mentions to Queen Victoria at a gorgeous state banquet that the British Empire has annexed Zululand to which the monarch replies whatever for?

In the twilight of her exceptionally long reign and as the 19th century draws to a close, Victoria realizes that her unconventional friendship with Abdul is her last jaunt at joviality even elevating him to a senior adviser and taking him on a trip to Florence, Italy where they are both fortunate enough to meet Puccini played with panache by character actor Simon Callow (A Room with a View, Maurice).

The cross cultural appeal of Victoria and Abdul should keep international audiences interested in this previously unknown friendship between an aging British monarch and a young, handsome Indian clerk, whose precarious protection at court was only valid while the Queen remained alive.

The shocking end sequence of Victoria and Abdul is a cruel reminder of how colonialism always excluded the other even when they were desperately trying to appease their colonizer.

As a brilliantly observed piece of largely ignored historical fact which only came to light through the discovery of Abdul’s journals in 2010, Victoria and Abdul is a beautiful period film, held together by two magnificently nuanced performances by both Judi Dench and Ali Fazal, both whom deserve Oscar nominations.

Victoria and Abdul gets a film rating of 8 out of 10 and will be enjoyed by audiences that cherished director Gurinder Chadha’s equally impressive Anglo-Indian drama The Viceroy’s House set during the partition of India, half a century in later.

 

Heroic Heiress

Florence Foster Jenkins

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Director: Stephen Frears

Cast: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Nina Arianda, Stanley Townsend, Christian McKay, John Sessions

No actress plays a diva quite like Oscar winner Meryl Streep. First it was her brilliant portrayal of the Fashion Editor Miranda Priestley in The Devil Wears Prada. Now in the capable hands of The Queen director Stephen Frears, Streep plays the delusional American heiress Florence Foster Jenkins opposite British star Hugh Grant.

For once Grant holds his own opposite Streep and as a rather stylish couple in Florence Foster Jenkins set in lavish New York musical circles in 1944 as the Second World War is drawing to a close.

Jenkins who unfortunately had an awful singing voice but believed that she could sing beautifully, enlists the help of accompanying pianist Cosme McMoon wonderfully played by Simon Helberg from the hit TV series The Big Bang Theory. Helberg acts with his eyes and his expressive disapproval of Jenkin’s awful voice is soon transformed into a fondness for the eccentric heiress who genuinely thinks her voice is superb.

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Naturally her singing ambition is encouraged by her husband St Clair Bayfield fabulously played by Hugh Grant (Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Sense and Sensibility). In a complicated arrangement Bayfield enjoys his conjugal activities with the gorgeous Kathleen, played by Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation) who isn’t impressed with Jenkins rise in popularity.

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Three time Oscar winner Meryl Streep (Kramer vs Kramer, Sophie’s Choice, The Iron Lady) nails her interpretation of Florence Foster Jenkins as a lonely American heiress who due to an unfortunate illness, namely syphilis, is never able to have children so she sets her sights on conquering the fickle and snobbish world of classical music and in turn believes she has the makings of a star.

Her crowning achievement came during the infamous concert at Carnegie Hall where to bolster audience numbers she gave free tickets to inebriated American soldiers about to embark on a foreign war. Remember this is the golden age of radio and Jenkins exploited this medium to its fullest, soon becoming a favourite for her willpower rather than any inherent lyrical traits.

Assisted with a witty script by Nicholas Martin, Frears approaches the tale of Florence Foster Jenkins in a high camp fashion, making the film a poignant and hilarious tale of the diva whose fabulous costumes and awful singing made her the heroic heiress of New York.

Florence Foster Jenkins is a delightful film and will sure to garner some recognition for the sumptuous production design and brilliant costumes in the approaching awards seasons.

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Simon Helberg is particularly superb as McMoon who is mesmerized and scandalized by the life force that was the flamboyant Florence Foster Jenkins https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florence_Foster_Jenkins.

This film is highly recommended viewing, a wonderfully acted tale of an heiress who certainly made the most of her fifteen minutes of fame despite popular opinion.

Tour de Lance

The Program

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Director: Stephen Frears

Cast: Ben Foster, Chris O’Dowd, Jesse Plemons, Dustin Hoffman, Guillaume Canet, Lee Pace, Bryan Greenberg, Denis Menochet

Acclaimed British directed Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, Philomena) tackles another real life media drama similarly to his Oscar winning film The Queen, in the sports expose of infamous cyclist Lance Armstrong in his new film The Program.

Based upon the novel The Seven Deadly Sins by the sports journalist David Walsh who tracked the rise and fall of Lance Armstrong from the early 1990’s to his public humiliation and eventual stripping of all seven Tour de France medals for admitting to running the most elaborate and sophisticated blood doping system in international cycling. The Program opens with a combative shot of David Walsh and Lance Armstrong playing table hockey in a French resort near the Tour de France route.

American actor Ben Foster (Kill Your Darlings) is terrific as Lance Armstrong, an ambitious cyclist who after battling and overcoming a devastating cancer diagnosis begins a record breaking winning streak by becoming the Tour de France champions seven times.

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Chris O’Dowd plays the sports journalist David Walsh who initially suspects that Armstrong’s winning streak is tainted by performance enhancing drugs and soon it is Armstrong’s own arrogance which confirms Walsh’s suspicions.

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Jesse Plemons (Bridge of Spies, Black Mass) plays the Amish cyclist Floyd Landis who initially joins Armstrong’s US Postal service team and then soon as the years progress gets caught for testing positive for using performance enhancing drugs such as testosterone as well as other barely detectable drugs such as  erythropoietin (EPO) which boost the body’s capacity for oxygen soon after being declared the winner of the 2006 Tour de France.

With the usual efficiency of editing and swift directing by Frears, The Program is an absorbing sports drama in a similar vein to Ron Howard’s Rush. What makes The Program so compelling is the immediacy of the story as the whole Lance Armstrong scandal is still fresh in the current news media, right up to the sensational interview that he gave on the Oprah Winfrey show in January 2013.

Lance Armstrong Interview with Oprah Winfrey

What is even more compelling to watch is Foster’s brilliant portrayal of Armstrong, a man whose initial devastating battle with testicular cancer turned his will to survive into an elaborate and arrogant drive to win at all costs and become an international sports icon and the brand of Lance Armstrong.

Doping scandals in sports are not new media fare but seem to be increasing reoccurring narratives in the media frenzied world of sports, where competitiveness and winning becomes the only method of establishing a celebrity status in the 21st century, which Frears skilfully emphasizes in The Program.

Whilst Frears’ earlier film The Queen about the British monarch’s response to the tragic death of Princess Diana back in 1997 is a far superior film, The Program is worth watching for Foster really inhabits the role of Armstrong, changing his physique and almost chillingly adopting his champion arrogance, which is often reflected in scenes where Armstrong is threatening other cyclists on the highly grueling and competitive Tour de France circuit.

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Audiences should look out for Lee Pace as Armstrong’s sleazy brand manager, Bill Stapleton and a brief cameo by Oscar winner Dustin Hoffman (Marathon Man, Rain Man) as the team US Postal Service’s underwriter, Bob Hamman, who was initially responsible for paying out large sums of cash to Armstrong for his successive Tour de France wins. French actor Guillaume Canet plays the shady Italian doctor Michele Ferrari.

The Program is a superb portrait of international sports competitiveness, deception and how the media are implicit in making these cyclists into celebrities then breaking them down when scandal erupts.

Source:Lance Armstrong

Mother Superior

Philomena

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Director: Stephen Frears

Cast: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Michelle Fairley, Mare Winningham, Peter Hermann, Sean Mahon

British director Stephen Frears certainly brings out the best in his female leads in his stunning filmography. Who can forget Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons or Angelica Huston in The Grifters? Or more recently Helen Mirren in her Oscar winning performance in The Queen?

The Queen

Frears manages to bring out the subtle naivety and unearthed guilt in Judi Dench’s Oscar nominated brilliant performance in the title role of Philomena a fascinating almost picaresque account of two people Philomena Lee and Martin Sixsmith in their quest to locate Philomena’s long lost son.

Philomena terrorized by Irish nuns and who fell pregnant after a brief encounter with a young man in Limerick back in the 1950’s, unknowingly gives up her young son at a reclusive Irish convent where the nuns reigned supreme, punishing young women who succumbed to the temptations of the flesh, by forcibly removing their unwanted children. This unorthodox form of adoption involved selling the small children to wealthy Americans to financially benefit the local nunnery, a practice which Sixsmith, a former Media Liaison Officer and now freelance journalist discovers to his horror and moral indignation.

Martin Sixsmith, Cambridge educated and living in Knightsbridge, an intellectual snob has to come down a level when he takes on the case of Philomena’s abandoned son who has gone missing fifty years earlier. Sixsmith, superbly played by comic actor Steve Coogan in one of the his best onscreen performances takes the slightly naive and streetwise Philomena on a journey to Washington DC to discover where her son is.

With his persistent investigative journalism skills, Sixsmith at the coaxing of his editor Sally Mitchell played by Games of Thrones actress Michelle Fairley soon realizes that Philomena’s son who would be 50 years old, was a legal advisor to the Republican Party in Washington D.C., but more revealingly was a closeted homosexual living during the era of denialism which blighted the initial impact of the AIDS epidemic in the years of the Reagan and the first Bush administration, namely the mid 1980’s to mid 1990’s.

More shockingly, Philomena and Sixsmith return to the convent aptly named the Sisters of the Sacred Heart to discover the awful truth about the fate of her son and the scandalous lengths the Catholic Church went to, to cover up not only his birth and illegal adoption, but those of many other children in the early 1950’s. An unfortunate fate which awaited all unwed Catholic girls in Ireland in that equally repressive era.

With his usual dexterity, Stephen Frears spins out an engrossing narrative around the journey that Philomena and Sixsmith embark on from Ireland to America and back again, puncturing the odyssey with nostalgic home video footage of the life of the lost son.

Dench’s  performance is subtle, gentle yet determined portraying both conviction and blind faith in Catholicism, which ironically deprived her of her only son and used shame and guilt to cover up the transaction. Sixsmith’s character also serves as a substitute son in Philomena emphasized in one hilarious scene in a Washington Hotel room where the only way to gain entry is to state that Philomena is his mother. With masterly performances by Dench and Coogan, Philomena is an acerbic, witty and tragic tale of revelation and forgiveness, expertly directed by Frears with a suitably poignant musical score by Alexandre Desplat. Highly recommended viewing and based upon the real story, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith.

 

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