Quiet and lyrical ‘Dear Frankie’ deserves an audience

Category: Dear Frankie Reviews | Posted by: admin
Article Date: April 29, 2005 | Publication: Santa Cruz Sentinel | Author: CATHERINE GRAHAM
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Films like "Dear Frankie" resemble good short stories. The investment of an hour or two reaps the reward of a rich and satisfying, if brief, visit into lives both like and unlike our own.

The story told in "Dear Frankie" is sweet and heartbreaking and quietly told, an appropriate approach since the main character is deaf and mute. And yet the voice that narrates the film is Frankie’s, reading aloud the letters he writes to his father, his long-stilled voice and poignant prose taking us deep into his head. The eagerly awaited replies always begin "Dear Frankie."

Set in modern day Glasgow, Scotland, the brogue is so thick that at times subtitles might be useful to the American ear. But much as finely honed prose urges the reader to struggle through difficult portions of a book, the carefully crafted look to the film helps carry the audience along.

Director Shona Auerbach, who was also the film’s cinematographer, picked a color palette used by a group of artists from the 1950s, The Glasgow Boys, whose trademark hues were based on the quality of light found in Scotland.

Thus, the working class neighborhood where Frankie (Jack McElhone) lives with his mother Lizzie (Emily Mortimer, memorable as the flapper at the center of attention in "Bright Young Things" and one of the sisters in "Lovely and Amazing") and grandmother Nell (venerable Scottish soap opera actress Mary Riggans) is the setting you might find in a watercolor painting. The tenements and nearby docks may be run down, the streets may be unfriendly to a single mom and a son whose handicap makes him a target for teasing by schoolmates, but they’re not the mean streets of the current spate of nouveau film noirs.

Instead, the potential for violence lurks outside the edges of the screen, in the person of Frankie’s biological father. In an honest but perhaps misguided maternal urge to protect her child, Lizzie keeps her little family on the run, moving from town to town, school to school. To explain the father’s long absences, she concocts an elaborate lie, telling Frankie his father is a sailor away for years at a time on ship. Frankie pours out his heart and inner life in the letters he writes to his fictional father. Lizzie intercepts the letters and replies to each one, enclosing foreign stamps and marvelous tales of life at sea.

Lies, even the best-intended ones, can turn around and bite. When Frankie learns that the ship his father supposedly serves on will be in port, he’s very excited about the opportunity to meet him at last. Lizzie decides to continue the ruse, and hires a stranger to pose as Frankie’s father on shore leave.

If "Dear Frankie" were typical Hollywood fare, the hunky stranger (listed in the cast as "The Stranger," for he is never tells his real name, played by Gerard Butler, Lord of the Undead in "Wes Craven’s Dracula 2000") who comes to the rescue would, by definition, end up marrying or become similarly attached to the mother. In an intelligent, independently made production like this one, the way the story plays out is neither so predictable nor cut and dry.

In this way, "Dear Frankie" bears a resemblance to the Oscar-winning Czech film "Kolya," in which a child’s innate goodness brings out the best in the adults around him. Everyone’s lives, including ours, are enriched by this boy, who turns out to be wise beyond his years.

"Dear Frankie" is the kind of small production classified in the movie biz as a "niche" film, without the "breakout" potential to attract a large and thus mainstream audience. As such it probably won’t play for long. If the story, setting or ambiance appeals to you, make the effort to see it soon.