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Dear Frankie

Reviewed By Elaine Perrone
Posted 03/08/05 18:04:25

"Mum's the word."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Dominating one long wall by the bedside of nine-year-old Frankie Morrison (Jack McElhone) is a large world map, on which the boy pins flags charting the course of his seafaring father’s vessel, the HMS Accra. Frankie’s proudest possessions are the letters he regularly receives from his “Da’,” in which are enclosed colorful maritime-themed stamps from exotic ports of call, and the album in which Frankie lovingly glues each stamp. What Frankie isn’t supposed to know is that the ship – and the father – are creations of his protective mum Lizzie (Emily Mortimer), who has written and mailed the letters to him herself.

Trying to keep her son, and herself, one step ahead of her abusive ex-husband, Lizzie moves the two of them around Scotland on a regular basis, accompanied by her own protective mother Nell (Mary Riggans). When the three take up residence in the seaside village of Greenock, Lizzie is stunned to learn that a ship called the Accra is due to arrive in port. Faced with the alternatives of telling Frankie the truth or continuing to shield him with the lie – or by picking up stakes once again – Lizzie turns to her friend Marie (Sharon Small, an uncanny double for American actor Pamela Reed), who happens to know a seafarer aboard the Accra (Gerard Butler, billed here only as “The Stranger”), who she persuades to pose as Frankie’s father for the short time the vessel is docked.

Dear Frankie’s strengths lie in its photography and in two particularly wonderful performances – those of young Jack McElhone as Frankie, a deaf child with a beautifully expressive face, luminous eyes, and a smile that, when it appears, could light up the whole of Scotland; and Gerard Butler as the surrogate father with whom Frankie forms a quick, deep, and thoroughly believable bond.

An especially charming scene is one in which the two are by the waterfront, the man teaching the boy to skim stones. After watching Frankie struggle with the task, the man picks up a smooth, flat stone that he deems “a champion skimmer.” In the small act of handing the stone to Frankie, his affection for the child is palpable, reciprocated in kind when Frankie gazes wistfully at the stone, torn between demonstrating his skill for his Da’ and pocketing the skimmer as another of his proud keepsakes.

Doing double duty as director and cinematographer, Shona Auerbach paints a lovely picture of a rugged blue-gray seaside town over which seagulls soar and ships’ cranes tower.

Although it falters toward the end, with a bit of third-act histrionics that manage to tie things up a touch too handily, Dear Frankie marks a deft, if slight, directorial debut for photographer Auerbach and is as enjoyable – and just about as substantive – as the baskets of “chips rolled in butter” that make up the young boy’s favorite meal.

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