Frears was born in Leicester, England. His father, Russell E. Frears, was a general practitioner and accountant, and his mother, Ruth M. (née Danziger), was a social worker. Frears was brought up Anglican, and did not find out that his mother was Jewish until he was in his late 20s.
From 1954—1959, Frears was educated at Gresham's School, a boarding independent school for boys (now co-educational) in the market town of Holt in Norfolk, followed by Trinity College at the University of Cambridge, from 1960 to 1963.
After graduating from Cambridge, Frears worked as an assistant director on the films Morgan! and if..... He spent most of his early directing career in television mainly for the BBC, but also for the commercial sector. Frears contributed to several high-profile anthology series such as the BBC's Play for Today, and produced a series of Alan Bennett's plays for LWT, taking responsibility for working in the gallery on The Old Crowd while Lindsay Anderson worked with the actors.
In the late 1980s, Frears came to international attention as a director of feature films. His directorial film debut was the detective spoof Gumshoe (1971), but it was his direction of My Beautiful Laundrette that unexpectedly led to wider notice. The interracial romance, based on a Hanif Kureishi screenplay and shot on 16 mm film, was released theatrically in 1985 to great acclaim, and received an Academy Award nomination and two nominations for BAFTA Awards: it is known as the film that helped launch both Frears and actor Daniel Day Lewis. In 1987, Frears worked with Adrian Edmondson on Mr Jolly Lives Next Door, for a 45-minute programme by cult ensemble The Comic Strip Presents. In 1985, Frears also directed a Comic Strip parody of Rebecca.
Frears next directed Joe Orton biopic Prick Up Your Ears, another collaboration with playwright Alan Bennett, which was followed by his second film from a Kureishi screenplay, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987). The following year, Frears made Dangerous Liaisons in France, with a cast that included Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer. Based on the novel of romantic game playing, the film received numerous Academy Awards and BAFTA nominations, and Frears himself was nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best Direction. Frears had further critical success with his next film The Grifters, another tale of con-artists. The film earned Frears his first Academy Award nomination for best direction. In 2006, Frears directed The Queen, that depicts the death of Princess Diana on 31 August 1997. The Queen also achieved immense critical acclaim, box-office success, and awards. Frears himself received his second Academy Award nomination for best direction, and Helen Mirren won numerous awards for playing the title role.
Frears' other films include Western The Hi-Lo Country (1998), which won him the best director award at the Berlin Film Festival, High Fidelity (2000), which features a number of scenes where star John Cusack addresses the audience directly, Dirty Pretty Things (2002), and British theatre comedy Mrs Henderson Presents (2005). Frears returned to directing for television with The Deal (2003), which depicts an alleged deal between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown over which of them should become leader of the Labour Party in 1994.
Frears has also directed two films based on novels by Roddy Doyle, The Snapper (1993) and The Van (1996).
He holds the "David Lean Chair in Fiction Direction" from the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield, where he teaches.
His 1992 film Hero, starring Dustin Hoffman, was a major box office disappointment. Frears was nominated for a Razzie Award for his direction of Mary Reilly.
His 2013 adoption drama Philomena, written by Jeff Pope and Steve Coogan, won the best screenplay award at the 2013 Venice Film Festival and the BAFTAS, and was nominated that year for Best Picture at the BAFTAs and the Academy Awards. It stars Coogan and Judi Dench. The same year, HBO released his television drama Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight, which depicts the US supreme court deliberation over banning Muhammad Ali from boxing for refusing to serve in Vietnam war.
His biopic of disgraced cycling champion Lance Armstrong The Program was premiered in the 2015 BFI London Film Festival.
Many of Frears' films are based on stories of real life characters, but Frears has never met any of them.
Frears currently lives in London with his wife, the painter Anne Rothenstein, and their two children. He also has two children from his previous marriage to Mary-Kay Wilmers. Early in his career, Frears made a programme featuring the band the Scaffold and is name-checked ("Mr Frears had sticky out ears...") in their hit song "Lily the Pink".
He was one of several celebrities who endorsed the parliamentary candidacy of the Green Party's Caroline Lucas at the 2015 general election.1982: Won BAFTA TV Award for best Single Play BBC2 Playhouse: Going Gently (#7.27)
1989: Won César Award for Best Foreign Film for Dangerous Liaisons
1990: Nominated for Academy Award for Best Director for The Grifters
1995: Won Goya Award for Best European Film for The Snapper
1996: Nominated for Razzie Award for Worst Director for Mary Reilly
1996: Nominated for the Golden Bear in Berlin for Mary Reilly
1999: Won Silver Bear for Best Director for The Hi-Lo Country in Berlin.
2003: Won BAFTA TV Awards for Best Single Drama for The Deal
2006: Nominated for Academy Award for Best Director for The Queen
2007: Won Goya Award for Best European Film for The Queen
2009: Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres
2014: Nominated for Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Directing for a Miniseries, Movie or a Dramatic Special for Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight
2014: Golden Duke for Lifetime Achievement of the 5th Odessa International Film Festival
The Burning (1967, short film) – See List of foreign films shot in Morocco
The Hit (1984)
My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)
Prick Up Your Ears (1987)
Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987)
Dangerous Liaisons (1988)
The Grifters (1990)
Mary Reilly (1996)
The Van (1996)
The Hi-Lo Country (1998)
High Fidelity (2000)
Dirty Pretty Things (2002)
Mrs Henderson Presents (2005)
The Queen (2006)
Tamara Drewe (2010)
Lay the Favorite (2012)
The Program (2015)
Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)
Victoria and Abdul (2017)
A Day Out (1972)
Sunset Across the Bay (1975)
Three Men in a Boat (1975)
Me! I'm Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1978)
Afternoon Off (1979)
One Fine Day (1979)
Bloody Kids (1980)
Walter and June (1983)
Saigon: Year of the Cat (1983)
The Bullshitters: Roll Out The Gunbarrel (1984)
December Flower (1984)
Consuela, or The New Mrs Saunders (1986)
Mr. Jolly Lives Next Door (1987)
The Snapper (1993)
Fail Safe (2000)
The Deal (2003)
Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight (2013)