In praise of Stephen Frears (& ‘Philomena’)

Jidi Dench in Philomena. Credit: The Weinstein Co.The Film Society of Lincoln Center is in the middle of a long tribute to the veteran Hollywood director George Cukor who worked steadily from the 1930s through the 1980s — racking up many classics — but who never developed the singular visual style that made peers such as Alfred Hitchcock much more famous.

Cukor’s strength was in tailoring his talents to the story at hand and guiding actors to the best possible performances. He made dramas, comedies, westerns, musicals. Cukor worked with Garbo on her best screen performance — “Camille” — and worked with Judy Holliday on her Oscar-winning “Born Yesterday.”

I thought of the craftsmanship of Cukor when I saw “Philomena” the other day. Director Stephen Frears has held down a position similar to that of Cukor for the past three decades, since the 1986 arthouse hit “My Beautiful Laundrette” moved him out of British television work — where he had been doing fine dramas for almost 20 years — and into international filmmaking.Queen

Perhaps because of the quicker pace of working in television and spending so many years designing shots for a smaller screen, Frears tends to eschew flashy graphics and cutting in favor of putting his actors front and center.

“Philomena” isn’t much to look at in terms of visual style, but the performance in the title role by Judi Dench is spectacular and seems almost guaranteed to earn her an Oscar nomination next month.

Frears also gets fine work from Steve Coogan as the fired BBC journalist who decides to do a freelance story on an elderly Irish woman who wonders what happened to the child that was taken away from her by the Catholic Church 50 years earlier.

The no-frills look of the film in no way detracts from our enjoyment of the story or the two lead actors.

“Philomena” is just the latest in a long line of Frears pictures with sensational performances that have earned many Academy Award nominations — including Anjelica Huston and Annette Bening in “The Grifters” and Glenn Close and Michelle Pfeiffer in “Dangerous Liaisons.”

Helen Mirren won the Oscar in 2006 for her career high performance in Frears’ “The Queen.”

In addition to the films touched by Oscar, Frears’ filmography includes the terrific 1987 Joe Orton biopic “Prick Up Your Ears” with Gary Oldman and the marvelous 1984 gangster picture “The Hit” with terrific work by John Hurt and a performance by a young Tim Roth that launched his movie career.

Frears has continued to work in television — just as Cukor did in his later years — and he did the acclaimed “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight” for HBO earlier this year.

Like Cukor, Frears raises old-fashioned craftsmanship to the highest levels of movie art.