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Stephen Frears achieves award-worthy grace

Frears’ ‘The Queen’ is one of those rare movies that takes a big chance — asking us to sympathize with both the monarchy and its subjects/critics — and knows exactly how to make it pay off.  By John Hartl

Stephen Frears’s “Dangerous Liasons” was nominated for an Oscar for best picture of 1988, but he wasn’t named as one of the year’s five top directors. Two years later, he made the Academy finals for best director, but his movie, “The Grifters,” failed to score a nomination for best picture.

This year, look for the planets to align properly and Frears to score in both categories for “The Queen.” The movie also seems likely to be nominated for best actress (Helen Mirren plays the current Queen Elizabeth), supporting actor (Michael Sheen is Tony Blair) and screenplay (by Peter Morgan).

“The Queen” appears to be a front-runner in all those categories. If it takes home all the awards for which it’s nominated, it won’t be a surprise. This is one of those rare movies that takes a big chance — asking us to sympathize with both the monarchy and its subjects/critics — and knows exactly how to make it pay off.

By the end, if you’re in tears, you may not know exactly why. While the movie can’t help but resurrect the hysteria surrounding Princess Diana’s death, it also brilliantly dramatizes Blair’s pragmatism and the fierce conservatism of the queen. We may never know exactly what these people said to each other, or how close Morgan came to the truth, but Frears and his actors never strike a false note.

He may seem an odd director for this material, partly because his most acclaimed movies tend to deal with working-class Brits. His breakthrough picture, “My Beautiful Laundrette” (1985), dealt with Pakistani capitalists battling British street punks and trying to survive in Margaret Thatcher’s England. It earned an Oscar nomination for Hanif Kureishi’s semi-autobiographical script; Frears and Kureishi explored similar territory in “Sammy and Rosie Get Laid” (1987).

“I think people are just astonished that this world exists,” Frears said when “Laundrette” was released. “I know I had no idea that all this went on. I’d never thought what England must be like from this perspective.” Moving on to Roddy Doyle’s Irish stories with “The Snapper” (1993) and “The Van” (1996), he drove past the blarney and demonstrated a keen understanding of another subculture.

“Other perspectives” would become Frears’ unofficial theme in movies as different as “Prick Up Your Ears” (1987), in which Gary Oldman played doomed playwright Joe Orton; “High Fidelity” (2000), with John Cusack as an obsessive Chicago record-store owner; “Dirty Pretty Things” (2002), about a Nigerian immigrant juggling jobs in London; and last year’s “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” about a World War II theatrical troupe defying the blitz.

Born in 1941 in Leicester, England, Frears had a long apprenticeship in British television before directing his first features. He began to develop a following with the offbeat crime movies “Gumshoe” (1971), starring Albert Finney as a would-be Liverpool private eye, and “The Hit” (1984), with Terence Stamp as a philosophical stool pigeon whose past catches up with him.

But there are more than a few hints of the man who would make “The Queen” in Frears’ earlier pictures — especially in the tragic tone that Anjelica Huston gave “The Grifters” and the cool regal touch that Glenn Close brought to “Dangerous Liaisons.” What’s new is the evenhandedness he achieves so gracefully in “The Queen.”