Often filmmakers unconsciously choose subjects and scripts that they find interesting, unaware of links between the subjects. My guess is that the three films that I have picked to discuss--all made by a single film director--were never meant to be a conscious trilogy and yet these have all the markings of three separate films that present a similar theme from the same individual. The filmmaker under discussion is Stephen Frears and it is quite possible that he himself would be surprised at the pattern he drew in the three films.
Three films of British filmmaker Stephen Frears require to be reassessed decades after they were made and, arguably, forgotten by many. The most enigmatic of the trio would be The Hit (1984), followed by Hero (1992) with Dustin Hoffman in the lead role, and finally Mary Reilly (1996) with Julia Roberts, John Malkovich, and Glenn Close. All the three movies have a common thread that would be apparent, if they are evaluated closely as group or as work of an auteur of cinema. All three, written by three different novelists and three different screenplay writers are essentially Frears’ cinematic essays on contradictory personalities in an individual, and then the perception of this duality by various less important characters within each story unfolding on screen and, ultimately, by us the viewers. If one realizes that Frears is a law graduate from Trinity College, London, the approach he takes on the three distinct tales is similar to a lawyer’s arguments presented to you, the viewer, as the judge and jury.
Frears' Mary Reilly was the most obvious example among the three films examining the black and the white aspects of human beings, because it was based on Valerie Martin’s novel which in turn was revisiting the Robert Louis Stevenson theme of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, essentially presenting the Stevenson tale from the point of view of Jekyll’s housemaid, Mary Reilly (played by Julia Roberts). This tale was further processed by screenplay-writer Christopher Hampton, whose screenplays credits include Atonement, Carrington and Dangerous Liaisons. And Stephen Frears added his cinematic stamp in the opening shots of the film with Julia Roberts on her knees, with the not-so-innocent camera encircling her from above giving the viewer a starter dish to savor, of both the watcher and the watched, heralding the meaty story that unfolds. Towards the end of the film, the viewer would wonder who was ultimately watching whom in the story.
Mary Reilly is no ordinary dumb housemaid. She observes and grasps changes in her environment. She even contemplates on what she grasps as a philosopher. Note the words of Mary Reilly in the movie `Where does this come from, this rage?' which are strangely the lines echoed by director Terrence Malick in his mesmerizing film The Thin Red Line made just 3 years later. Mary Reilly is talking about the dark side of man; so is Malick, only in his case, the context is war.
The words of Mr Hyde to Mary Reilly: `Would you like to stay for awhile, or has my sense of smell betrayed me?' is an example of verbal sexual play in the film that makes the Hampton screenplay notable. It reminds you of another dark contemporary film: Perfume-the story of a murderer, another film made many years after Mary Reilly.
Or take this intriguing line from the same Frears film. Asks Mary Reilly: “He said you had an ailment. What sort of ailment is it?” Answers Dr Jekyll: “You might call it a fraction of my soul. Something that left me with a taste for oblivion.” 'Fraction of the soul' is indeed a great way to describe the three Frears films.
And some four years before Mary Reilly, Frears had made a film in the US called Hero that had uncomfortable questions thrown at viewers on the basic concept of heroism and the associated values and contradictions. Can a petty thief be a hero? That was the thought-provoking question asked by a threesome--Oscar-winning writers Alvin Sargent and David Peoples, and another distinguished Hollywood author Laura Ziskin--in Frears' Hero. Bernie, a pickpocket, played by Dustin Hoffman, anonymously rescues people from a plane crash site forcing the viewer of the film to come to terms with the subtle line dividing our perception of heroism and crime in the context of one individual. Another character, Bubber (Andy Garcia), more pleasing to the viewer’s eye than Bernie, is an otherwise noble individual who does the reverse by opting to impersonate the real hero. They are clever alter egos of each other. Another "fraction of the soul." It is like asking the viewer to choose between a Jekyll and a Hyde in either of the two individuals while the film is ostensibly a satire on hypocrisy on the media today.
But Frears’ fascination for the dichotomy of the human personality is arguably best portrayed in his earlier film The Hit. This Frears' film had the trappings of a conventional thriller or a road movie. However, Frears and the writer and scriptwriter Peter Prince delivered a jawbreaking punch at the viewer’s perception an individual's approach to inevitable death in the near term. Another "fraction of the soul" to quote the lines from Mary Reilly. The Hit is a film that could be dismissed as a mere thriller were it not for this cat and mouse game on screen revolving around mortal fear and the clever game between the filmmakers and the audience. Frears and Prince flesh out a character named Willie Parker (Terence Stamp), a hood who squeals on his mates and in return the British judicial system gives him a new life in Spain, complete with a fulltime bodyguard. The hood spends his days in exile reading books. The hood it appears has gradually transformed into a well-read philosopher. It is at this time that he is abducted by two hit-men (fascinating performances from John Hurt and Tim Roth) hired by the gangsters who had to go to prison because of Parker’s testimony.
To most viewers, the film would provide interest because of the excitement the film offers during the abduction and the various events that unfold as the prisoner is taken in a car from Spain to France for his eventual execution on Paris by those he had squealed on. But Frears and Prince present a film on a gangster, who by his recent exposure to books, can mock impending death.
Here is a sample conversation:
The young hit-man Myron (Tim Roth) “You've got nothing to smile about mate, if you knew.”
Willie Parker:”If I knew?”
Willie Parker to the senior hit-man Braddock (John Hurt): “He thinks I don’t know”
And much later Parker tells young Myron about his views on death “It's just a moment. We're here. Then we're not here. We're somewhere else... maybe. And it's as natural as breathing. Why should we be scared?”
Answers young Myron: “I think you're crazy, but I admire your attitude.”
It is this attitude that makes the audience gradually admre Parker. Frears and Prince transform a hood into a hero not just for the hit-men on screen but for us the viewers. There is an awesome shot captured by Frears of Parker enjoying the view of a waterfall, seemingly at peace with himself as would a Tibetan monk, not characteristic of a man about to be executed. It is definitely one of the finest performances of Terence Stamp on screen. Even the senior hit-man Braddock is shaken by Parker's demeanor.
The trouble is that Frears and Prince have made a film that makes it almost impossible to admire Parker, except for two pivotal instances in the film which can be missed out, if you the viewer even blinks. Frears development of the character of Willie Parker is as distinguished as another British filmmaker John Boorman’s character Walker (played by Lee Marvin) in his US film Point Blank (1967). Both characters, Parker and Walker, are goons--yet the two directors presented us with characters larger than life, admirable for limited screen time.
The Hit is more than an interesting study of the personality of Parker. Three other characters in the film also exude elements of dual personalities themselves. The only woman of note in the film, Maggie, is a woman, who states that she does not know English sufficiently but this lie is exposed through a trick. The two hit-men are not made of steel either--each present vignettes of their characters that contradict the obvious veneer.
If you evaluate the three Frears’ films, each provides value beyond their screen time as the viewer can reflect on the subjects presented on screen. Each film presents two sides of a coin. Often these individuals are not likeable individuals but there is a certain magnetism that they exude on screen. And each film has a moment or two where you realize that what you see and associate with goodness or braveness can be deceptive. It could bother a perceptive viewer, and perhaps that is one reason these films did not make the box office jingle.
One wonders if Frears is continuing to build on the same theme in more films.
P.S. The film is not just an important collaboration between a director and scriptwriter but a film that offers three memorable performances from Terence Stamp, John Hurt and Tim Roth. John Hurt’s performance as the hit-man Braddock won him the best actor award at The Evening Standard British Film Awards and shared the honor with Terence Stamp and Tim Roth at the Mystfest (Italy) awards for The Hit. Two films mentioned above--The Thin Red Line and Perfume--have been reviewed earlier on this blog.