Improbable tale leaves family with hope

Category: Dear Frankie Reviews | Posted by: admin
Article Date: June 24, 2005 | Publication: ASAHI.com | Author: AYAKO KARINO, Contributing Writer
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There are things that happen in real life, and there are things that only happen in the movies.

If the latter sometimes seem plausible, chalk it up to the power of cinema to make us believe the unbelievable.

"Dear Frankie" makes a convincing case that a mother who lies to her son-and keeps on lying to prevent the fiction she's created from crumbling-is acting in the child's best interests.

The plot of the bittersweet tale is utterly implausible, but that doesn't stop British director Shona Auerbach from getting viewers to go along with the idea that honesty isn't always the best policy.

Unable to pluck up the courage to tell her 9-year-old son Frankie (Jack McElhone) that his father is no longer on the scene, Lizzie (Emily Mortimer) tells him that dear old dad is out at sea aboard a merchant ship.

Frankie, who's hearing-impaired and will not speak, earnestly writes letters to his seafaring sire and is none the wiser that the replies he receives are actually written by his mother. Lizzie keeps up the pretense because the correspondence is the only way she can unlock the secrets of her silent son's mind.

All goes well until the pair, accompanied by Lizzie's chain-smoking mom, Nell (Mary Riggans), move to a small coastal town in Scotland. By the sort of coincidence that only happens in the movies, a ship bearing the same name that an unwitting Lizzie has christened the fictitious father's vessel is due in port in a few days. Frankie, of course, is delighted by the prospect of seeing his long-absent father.

Most moms would come clean at this point. Lizzie, on the other hand, takes the improbable step of hiring a stranger (Gerard Butler) to pretend to be Frankie's father for a day. It's a straight-off-the-silver-screen move that ultimately restores hope to the lives of Frankie and Lizzie.

Given the storyline and its focus on a child with a disability, "Dear Frankie" had the tearjerking potential to be vintage cheese. But Auerbach's first feature film takes a subtle, understated approach that doesn't manipulate the audience into sympathizing with the characters. Instead, viewers are required to discover for themselves what the characters are thinking.

The film's twists and turns unveil important aspects of the characters' feelings, and there's much to be divined from the landscape shots that the 38-year-old director and cinematographer, a former photographer, inserts into the film.

That a plot as unrealistic as this one seems realistic says a great deal about the credibility of the cast's performances. Mortimer is compelling as a misguided woman whose love for her son is never in doubt. McElhone, a young actor with great promise, imbues Frankie with an air of mystery. The sole conversation he has with his dad-for-a-day is priceless.

The third element in this triangle of talent is Butler, who made a name for himself in the recent film "Phantom of the Opera."

"This is a humble, sweet, warm love story, and that's why I chose it," Butler said at a recent news conference in Tokyo. "I read it and it just took me so by surprise."

Although his character first appears halfway through the film at a difficult point in the relationship between mother and son, it never feels as if he's intruding. Warm and considerate, if slightly mysterious, he welcomes Frankie into his heart.

"I just used different facets of myself (to play the role). Like myself as Gerard Butler, the stranger, I feel, has lived a lot of life and, in sadness, kind of checked out," said the 35-year-old Scottish actor, whose strong performance is redemption enough for his forgettable roles in 2003's "Timeline" and the Tomb Raider sequel.

Butler describes "Dear Frankie" as "a film that can make you laugh and cry at the same time."

"Yet you come out feeling incredible," he said. "Feeling like you want to take on the world."