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A QUIET TRIUMPH OF BRITISH INTENSITY

Category: Dear Frankie Reviews
Article Date: January 21, 2005 | Publication: Birmingham Post | Author: critic
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DEAR FRANKIE
CERT 12A 105 MINS

Despite being given a standing ovation at Cannes and then a well received UK premiere at last year's Edinburgh Film Festival, the debut feature by Warwickshire based director Shona Auerbach has been somewhat unceremoniously left to gather dust in the intervening months, its release date constantly being shunted back.

It finally arrives now though to happily coincide with Auerbach's nomination for the BAFTA Carl Foreman Award for best debuting director, screenwriter or producer. Ironically she actually finds herself up against the film's screenwriter Andrea Gibb who's nominated for her previous outing in the sadly overlooked Afterlife.

Although the smart money's likely to be on either Matthew Vaughn for Layer Cake or Shaun of the Dead producer Nira Park, Auerbach can be well pleased with her assured first effort.

Expanded from Gibb's original short script and influenced by lovely 1997 Czech Oscar winner Kolya, it tells the poignant story of how, always on the move after having deserted her abusive husband, young mom Lizzie (Emily Mortimer) is now living in a Scottish coastal town with chain-smoking mother Nell (Mary Riggans) and nine-year-old son Frankie. (Jake McElhone).

The boy, who is deaf, has no memory of his father and Lizzie's told him he's away at sea, a fabrication she's maintained by having her son's letters sent to a PO Box from where she recovers them and then fakes replies.

However, when it transpires that the ship she's chosen, picked off a stamp, not only actually exists but is due to dock at the local port and a classmate has bet Frankie that his dad won't show up to see him, she's faced with a choice of options.

Not wishing to move again now that Frankie's settled in to his new school, nor to tell him the truth as her mother suggests, the only alternative is to find someone to pose as his dad for the day.

And so it is that, arranged by new friend and employer, local chippie Marie (Sharon Small), she agrees to pay the unnamed man (Gerard Butler) she meets in the cafe to play the part.

Fairly inevitably the stranger, quiet, gentle and with deeply compassionate eyes, forges an instant bond with the boy and sparks something in Lizzie too. Which is when news arrives of Frankie's real dad.

With the exception of one piercingly wrenching moment, marvellous natural newcomer McElhone doesn't utter a word on screen throughout the film but does provide the articulate voice over narration of his inner life and thoughts. It sounds a clunky, sentimental device, but works perfectly.

And there's an honesty of character and emotion that runs throughout, from Small's vibrant Marie and Mortimer's emotionally frozen Lizzie through Frankie's two schoolfriends to a striking confrontation with the ex-husband. And for all the high drama of Phantom of the Opera, this is by far the best, most engaging performance Butler has ever given.

Maybe it's because its written, directed and produced by women, but this humorous and touching insight into a mother's love and the realisation that boys need fathers is warm without being cloying, just as the revelation as to Frankie's deafness is delivered, not with melodramatic flourish, but in a sharp, bitter line that delivers an even more numbing blow.

Good looking (Auerbach's background includes photography), melancholic and with a heartbreakingly uplifting twist to the final moments, it may not reap the same critical praise or honours as Vera Drake, but it deserves your equal attention. HHH

 


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