It takes an exceptional filmmaker to bring distinction to material that, in lesser hands, would be hopelessly cliched; Stephen Frears has clearly demonstrated that he has the gift with such fine but very different films as “Dangerous Liaisons,” “The Grifters” and “High Fidelity,” all of which could have easily gone awry if the directorial touch hadn’t been so secure. Even Frears’ less noteworthy “big” pictures–“Hero,” “Mary Reilly,” “The Hi-Lo Country”–weren’t conventional failures; though imperfect, they were hardly hack examples of their respective genres. And he’s regularly gone back to his roots to produce smaller works of extraordinary charm and insight: among his earliest pictures were “My Beautiful Laundrette,” “Sammie and Rosie Get Laid” and “Prick Up Your Ears,” all of them outstanding, and more recently he made the delightful “The Snapper” and “The Van.” Very few contemporary directors can boast so wide-ranging and impressive an oeuvre.

By all rights Frears’ latest film, “Liam,” shouldn’t work at all. The tale of the disintegration of a British Catholic working-class family during the Great Depression of the 1930s contains elements that have been worked to death in other pictures. First there’s a young boy’s reaction to the strictness of a religious schooling, exhibited in his painful stuttering, which obviously has emotional as well as physical roots. To this are added anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant bigotry fueled by economic distress; a long-suffering wife; an adolescent daughter whose beauty is scarred by tragedy; incipient Marxism and fascism; and, of course, the nostalgic recreation of an era of pubs dominated by popular tunes and generous glasses of ale. If the story weren’t set in Liverpool, it could have been “Angela’s Ashes” all over again, and if it weren’t told with refinement instead of pretense, it might have become a clone of “Distant Voices, Still Lives.” But in Frears’ hands the script by Jimmy McGovern, despite its cliches, is brought to life with surprising freshness. The result isn’t without flaws, but it’s far more affecting than one might have expected.

The title character is played by wide-eyed urchin Anthony Borrows as a mute, passive lad often frozen by his stutter, his small size, the formidable presence and frequent harangues of the schoolmistress and the pastor at his local parish, and the occasional parental outbursts he must confront at home. His closest relationship is with his withdrawn older sister Teresa (Megan Burns), an almost ethereal presence who goes to work as a maid for a wealthy Jewish family after their father (Ian Hart) loses his job in the shipyard. Dad’s inability to find another job makes him angry and resentful, bringing his underlying prejudices to the fore; and the family’s poverty is equally devastating for his wife (Claire Hackett), a proud woman who tries desperately to hold things together by systematically pawning the family’s meager possessions.

The attempt to juggle all the characters and themes treated in McGovern’s screenplay would defy the best efforts of most directors, but though Frears’ control goes lax at some points, he manages never to drop the ball. “Liam” occasionally loses focus as it tries to deal with the considerable ground the writer wants to cover, and the convergence of various plot strands at the close can’t help but seem forced; but the director treats almost everything with restraint (though even he can’t salvage an all-too-broad harangue the father indulges in during his son’s first communion mass), so that the picture doesn’t often descend into the mawkishness or melodramatic excess it could easily have persistently invited. The cast serves his requirements well, and cameraman Andrew Dunn gives the picture a lovely, burnished look.

The result is a picture that doesn’t rank with Frears’ finest, but is far better than it has any right to be.