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Dear Frankie

Category: Dear Frankie Reviews
Article Date: August 27, 2004 | Publication: The Scotsman | Author: Alastair McKay

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Directed by: Shona Auerbach
Starring: Emily Mortimer, Gerard Butler, Sharon Small, Jack McElhone

IF STARS were Kleenex, Dear Frankie would be a five-handkerchief movie. It is that rare thing, a Scottish film with the ability to appeal to a mainstream audience, but one which maintains a level of artistry in its execution.

There is, to be sure, a deep seam of sentimentality just below the surface of the picture, and cynics would do well to stay away. But, in the final analysis, the film’s emotional power comes from its sense of restraint. Its most telling scene is an extended silence.

Frankie (Jack McElhone) is a nine-year-old boy who is deaf. When we first encounter him, he is packing his belongings into a box in preparation for a flit. He tapes the box shut and writes his name in marker, along with the instruction: "Handle With Care!!"

Frankie’s mother, Lizzie (Emily Mortimer), is moving to a new flat. The move, we are led to understand, is an attempt to escape the attentions of Frankie’s father, who has, it seems, been violent towards the boy. The deafness, Lizzie explains, "was a present from his daddy". They move to Greenock, in Frankie’s words, "right on the edge of the sea, right on the edge of the world".

The water is important, because Lizzie has told Frankie that his father is at sea. To maintain the illusion, she forges poetic letters from him - about the sea spray and the drama of crossing the equator - and intercepts the boy’s replies at a PO box. The boy keeps a map of the world in his bedroom, on which he traces his father’s progress. He has an album of exotic stamps and a photo of his parents from which his father’s face has been torn out.

At which point, a note of doubt intrudes. If the boy was harmed by his father, why is he so keen to keep in touch with him, and why does his mother go to such lengths to deceive him? There exists the possibility that she maintains the correspondence as a way of hearing her son talk, but it seems at least unlikely that she would risk hurting him further. What is clever is the way Lizzie attempts to tell the truth, even when she is involved in a bigger deception. She tells the boy she is sure his father wants to see him. "He might not want to see me, but he’ll always want to see you. You’re his boy."

The plan begins to unravel when Frankie discovers that the ship his father is supposed to be sailing on is due to visit the local port. His mother decides to hire a man to impersonate him.

In the Hollywood version, Lizzie would fall in love with the fake father, and the family would live happily ever after. That doesn’t happen, although elements of the plot exist at the far perimeter of plausibility. Would she really put her boy in the care of a stranger?

The man, who is never given a name, is played as a tough, remote character by Gerard Butler. There is a sense - which the screenplay does nothing to encourage - that he has a similar story in his past.
In a way, the emotional pull of the story masks Auerbach’s talent for moments of small drama. The scene in which Frankie and his girlfriend - in a beached rowing boat - plan to break into his mother’s wardrobe to search for secrets has a bewildering innocence. Lizzie’s trip to the pub in search of a man is powerfully claustrophobic. The scenes in which Frankie meets his fake dad, and the fake dad says goodbye to Lizzie, show an appreciation of the power of silence.

There are occasional lapses. The use of Damien Rice’s Delicate on the soundtrack as Frankie’s new dad teaches him to skim stones feels overly manipulative, and it undoes some of the work of Andrea Gibb’s sparse screenplay.

The performances are excellent. Mortimer is tough and vulnerable, Butler is as broody as James Bond, and McElhone has a face that could melt an iceberg.


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