Following Stephen Frears' career has not been much fun for me for the last twenty years or so, but I feel as if I owe that much to the director of One Fine Day (1979), Bloody Kids (1979), My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), and Song of Experience (1986). For a few years back then, I considered Frears one of the world's greatest filmmakers.
If there was a shift in Frears' sensibility after the success of Laundrette and his graduation from British TV to international theatrical releases, it's not that easy to detect. He always considered himself an interpretive artist, subordinate to the writer's vision. Around the time of Afternoon Off (1979) or One Fine Day, he began to enjoy master shots, started moving his camera more deliberately, and seemed struck by a new awareness of the space around people. Technique is merely the handmaiden of artistic sensibility, of course, and the fact that Frears' films no longer look the same is not an indictment. But, in his best films, Frears' technique took him to an interesting, contemplative place. He intuitively grasped that his camera style lent itself to a demonstration of the psychological inaccessibility of characters, and found angles on his scripts that allowed him to emphasize the unknowable aspects of people.
This directorial attitude pretty much evaporated upon contact with the world of theatrical distribution and international acclaim. In retrospect, I suppose that Frears never wanted to brandish such an attitude, and remained true to his conception of the director's role. But there's a practical problem with a director subordinating himself or herself to the writer. A script is a solid thing that can be passed around, an object that every producer and investor can and does scrutinize and try to modify. By committing himself to an interpretive role in an industrial context, Frears risks becoming the servant of a larger, more commercial agenda. And that's exactly what the trajectory of Frears' career suggests to me. It's not as if his recent films lack judgment or taste, but he's no longer negotiating a settlement between what a comfort-loving audience wants and what the filmmakers choose to give. The inscrutability and visual recessiveness that gave such power to his late-television period would not necessarily poison the commercial prospects of the films that Frears now supervises. But someone would need to make the decision not to take the safest possible route.
Cheri, Frears' new movie of Christopher Hampton's adaptation of two Colette stories, offers the audience a number of genre pleasures: lavish décor and costumes, the pleasure of bitchiness as a recreational sport, a self-confident grande-dame protagonist who strikes poses and gets a lot of conspicuously witty dialogue. While I was watching the film, I mostly registered Frears' cooperative attitude toward these tropes. The project certainly has points of interest, most notably the elusive character of Cheri, quite well played by Rupert Friend: unaware of what he wants or even feels, and yet possessing an assertion and vigor that is wholly ineffective in the absence of self-knowledge. In fact, Cheri is exactly the kind of randomly bouncing pachinko ball that Frears might have enjoyed setting free in the shifting visual field of his earlier style. If Cheri feels relatively shallow, it's because the filmmakers want the audience to receive familiar genre pleasures, not because the material doesn't contain depths. The raptures of love are dilated upon with large acting and music cues; likewise the self-aggrandizing sorrow of renunciation. The ambiguity of response and the irresolution that lies between these poles, the only emotional terrain in the film that might really repay exploration, could only be probed at the risk of throwing the audience off its comfort.