Dear Frankie

Reviewed By Stephen Groenewegen
Posted 04/18/05 22:54:11

"Faraway worlds"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Dear Frankie has the same plucky charm, and warm blend of humour and heartbreak, as last year’s In America.

Set in Scotland, Dear Frankie centres on a tight family unit spanning three generations. Whenever the past threatens to catch up with single mother Lizzie Morrison (Emily Mortimer), she uproots her mum (Sharon Small) and son Frankie and they leave town. Nine year-old Frankie (Jack McElhone, from Young Adam) is deaf. Round-faced and withdrawn, he’s a “champion lip-reader” who prefers not to speak and keeps his hearing aid resolutely switched off.

Arriving in a bleak coastal village outside Glasgow, Frankie is happy to be by the ocean. The sea obsesses him, mainly because his absent dad works on a ship. Or so Lizzie tells him. Frankie hasn’t seen his dad since he was very young, although they correspond regularly by mail. Now his father’s ship is coming to town. How can Lizzie get around the simple truth that Frankie’s dad won’t be on it?

Dear Frankie began life as a short film script, but first-time director Shona Auerbach and producer Caroline Wood worked closely with screenwriter Andrea Gibb to mould it into a feature. The movie deftly shifts between the worlds of children and adults, without belittling or exaggerating either of them.

The visuals are as fluid as the storytelling. Auerbach started her career as a stills photographer, and she also acted as cinematographer on the movie. It flows beautifully, for which editor Oral Nottie Ottey must share credit. Auerbach has a photographer’s eye for the ordinary, and she highlights the vibrancy and diversity of a simple image like the inside of a fish tank.

Melodrama intrudes on Dear Frankie’s gentle pace towards the end - we even have that old staple, the unnamed terminal illness, to contend with. Nevertheless, the actors kept me involved. Emily Mortimer’s delightful work in Lovely & Amazing and Bright Young Things did not prepare me for her heartfelt performance; her confrontation with Frankie over a locked wardrobe is breathtaking. Lizzie lies to her son, can be desperate and manipulative and unfriendly, but we never lose sight of the mother’s love that motivates her. As her son, McElhone is also likeable, and natural enough not to hit us over the head with his character’s deafness.

Gerard Butler (The Phantom of the Opera) is the rough-edged seaman that Lizzie finds to pose as Frankie’s dad for a day. Butler’s playing a man without past, present or future. On paper, his rugged Prince Charming could have stepped from a Mills and Boon novel. Butler turns the role into something more interesting. He undercuts his charm with a shifty look and calculating manner; he looks over Lizzie’s modest flat as if he’s casing a bank before a heist.

Dear Frankie is a small movie that encompasses large themes: truth, family, loneliness, and the search for identity. Stimulating and kind, the movie also benefits from the poignant musical score of Alex Heffes. An obvious labour of love for the filmmakers, Dear Frankie is well worth seeking out.

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