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Dear Frankie Review -

Category: Dear Frankie Reviews
Article Date: March 5, 2005 | Publication: | Author: Erica Rosen

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Dear Frankie (Shona Auerbach, UK 2004, 104mins)

There is a quiet, yet distinct “once upon a time” quality at the heart of Shona Auerbach’s likeable, though uneven, debut feature, which is as much about the relationship of a young, single-mom and her deaf-mute son as it is about the art, joy and seductive appeal of storytelling.

Lizzie Morrison (Emily Mortimer) is packing up house and home again, much to the exasperation of her mother, Nell (Mary Riggans), though her nine-year old son, Frankie (Jack McElhone), seems to take it in his stride – probably because they’ve been on the move for as long as he can remember. This latest move brings the family to a quaint seaside town where they settle into a flat above a fish and chip shop run by Marie (Sharon Small), who forms a friendship with Lizzie. Wanting to protect her son from the reason behind their itinerant lifestyle (she is on the run from his violent father), Lizzie has concocted an elaborate story that has Frankie’s father away at sea. Writing to Frankie every few weeks, Lizzie describes the exotic, far away places that life on board a merchant ship takes this make-believe father. Frankie seems to exalt in these letters. He tracks the course of the ship – the HMS Accra – on a map of the world he has pinned to his wall. He is fascinated with the sea and marine life and he is a very big reader. The letters he writes back to his father overflow with enthusiasm and curiosity. Frankie seems to possess a natural talent for writing, accentuated perhaps by the fact that he is deaf. We learn that this was not a condition from birth; rather, it was the result of a particularly vicious attack from his real father whilst he was still a baby. However, Frankie does have the choice to use hearing aids, which would also help to improve his speech, but he is far more comfortable with the written word.

Assigning a handicap to a central character upon which the entire plot and story hangs is at best dubious, at worst embarrassing and degrading, but Dear Frankie succeeds in pulling this off because it is not a film about coping with a physical challenge. Instead, Frankie’s deafness is used as the means by which we enter the richness of his interior world, and the exchange of letters between mother and son is what makes up the emotional and narrative core of the film. Frankie is far too intelligent and intuitive a child to not know something is very odd about a father he never sees, but he clearly revels in the illusion. When castigated by her mother for perpetuating the myth of this fictitious father Lizzie replies that “it’s the only way I can hear his voice”. Lizzie has created a fictionalised world within which she and Frankie have become its inventive authors.

Just as things seem to be going well for the family, news arrives that is bound to blow Lizzie’s cover: The HMS Accra is due to dock into the port just near their town. And as if that wasn’t enough, Lizzie is being pressed by the family of Davey - Frankie’s real dad, who is dying in hospital, to bring Frankie to see him. Meanwhile, a classmate of Frankie’s who has grown suspicious of this ever-absent father seizes the opportunity to challenge Frankie, betting him that his father won’t show up. Frankie puts his prized stamp collection up for risk and writes his father a desperate letter, which of course tears Lizzie apart. Though it’s the ideal opportunity to come clean to Frankie, Lizzie just isn’t quite ready to let go, and decides instead to enlist the help of her friend Marie to find a man that can act as Frankie’s father for just one day. Stunned but equally beguiled, Marie sets up her brother – a detail she hides from Lizzie, to play the role. Referred to simply as The Stranger (played by Gerard Butler), Marie sets up a meeting between her brother and Lizzie. Initially suspicious and somewhat disapproving, The Stranger, too, becomes intrigued by Lizzie’s story and consents to help her out in her plight. It would seem that no one can resist the opportunity to contribute to a good story.

Visually sumptuous (Ms Auerbach is both director and director of photography), and with an astonishing central performance by Jack McElhone, there is much to admire in this first feature film, but it certainly not without it flaws. The script in its original inception was as a 15-minute short; this feature-length version feels unnecessarily over-padded and would have benefited from an edit down from its 104-minute running time. Furthermore, the splendour of the scenery, which sits so well with the beauty of the central relationship, is undermined by an overbearing soundtrack that booms in at all the wrong moments. Nevertheless, there is a lot of genuine charm here, not least for the fact for every “once upon a time” there is inevitably a “happily ever after”.


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