Snapper: Stephen Frears Charming Film

Two marvelous films, Stephen Frears’ The Snapper and Mike Leigh’s Naked, represent the very best of the new British cinema.

As with every national cinema, there have been ups and downs in the history of British cinema. One should not get the impression that English cinema experiences something of a height at present–economically, it’s in shambles. But, obviously, economic conditions can’t really stifle artistic creativity.

The film output of both Frears and Leigh is grounded in Thatcher’s regime of the 1980s. Through their work, both filmmakers reflect their disgust and outrage at a social system that had made the rich richer and the poor poorer, exactly what Karl Marx predicted about a century ago. But both directors express their bitter vision of the class system with biting, acerbic humor–and irony, the one quality, which is so badly missing from American movies.

Frears established international recognition with the l986 sleeper, My Beautiful Launderette, a rude, lively social comedy about the Pakistani community in London that made Daniel Day Lewis a household name. His new picture, The Snapper, draws on Roddy Doyle’s tales of Dublin’s working class. If in Doyle’s The Commitments, which was directed by Alan parker in l991, the subject was youth and soul music, in the new film it’s teen pregnancy. The approach, however, is the same: amiable, sensitive, and compassionate. As evidenced by the new movie, Frears seems to be the perfect director for Doyle’s wry worldview and unique perspective on life.

The Snapper begins on a typically gray and gloomy day, as Sharon Curley (Tina Kellegher), a young unmarried woman, suddenly announces she’s pregnant. But she won’t reveal who’s the father. Dad (the great Colin Meaney), a staunch Roman Catholic, is shocked, but only for a brief moment. Instead of kicking her out, he’s determined to help her through the ordeal. Of course, there is the expected yelling, stomping, and carrying on in the house. But despite the continuous squabbles and arguments, the Curlys clearly love one another–they’re what is described in sociology as a tightly knit family.

Sharon finally relents and reveals the identity of the baby’s father, but the film’s major concern is to describe how one very special family deals with the crisis. Considering the large number of dysfunctional families we’ve been seeing in American movies–and, of course, TV–it’s refreshing to observe one family that, for a change, is not depressing or dysfunctional. It’s even more encouraging to observe the enormously talented Frears go back, after his disastrous American movie Hero, to the kind of material he excels in–small, intimate anarchic comedies that interweave complex relationships (My Beautiful Launderette and the vastly undervalued Sammy and Rosie Get Laid).

As he showed in the aforementioned films, and in Dangerous Liaisons, Frears’ ability with actors is remarkable. Headed by Meaney, The Snapper features a glorious ensemble acting that very seldom prevails in American movies; there’s not one weak performance. At 90 minutes, The Snapper is, by today’s standards, very short, but it’s long enough to explore in depth an intricate web of relationships within one happy Irish family–and town.

Despite some thematic and political similarities, there’s a difference in tonality between Frears and Leigh. Frears’ heroes in My Beautiful Launderette, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, and The Snapper are survivors who learn how to live within the corrupt system, even exploit it. In contrast, Leigh’s characters in High Hopes and Naked are mostly losers who are headed nowhere. The only thing that unites them is deep contempt for England’s nouveau riche and rigid class structure. It may be ironic, but The Snapper’s joyous and amiable humor may derive from the fact that the film is set in Dublin, not in Leigh’s depressing London.

The Snapper and Naked are two major highlights not only of this season but also of the entire movie year.