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Dear Frankie

Category: Dear Frankie Reviews
Article Date: March 25, 2005 | Publication: Globe and Mail | Author: RICK GROEN
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Dear Frankie
Directed by Shona Auerbach
Written by Andrea Gibb
Starring Emily Mortimer, Jack McElhone, Gerard Butler
Classification: PG
Rating: * * *

The point at which sentiment gives way to sentimentality, when real emotion melts into treacle, is never fixed. It varies wildly with the viewer. For some, like me, the melting point is low. Others, perhaps more generous or just less demanding, have a much higher tolerance, and thus a broader definition of what constitutes an emotionally genuine moment. Dear Frankie is the kind of movie like Terms of Endearment or Ordinary People that acts as a litmus test for precisely this quotient. I find parts of it false and manipulative; you may find all of it truthful and charming. There's no right answer.

In either case, however, it would be mingy to deny that the picture is very well crafted and superbly acted. Whatever you may think of the idea, its execution is admirable. The script, by Andrea Gibb, opens with a moving scene, literally: A family of three Nell the granny (Mary Riggans), Lizzie the mom (Emily Mortimer), and Frankie her young son (Jack McElhone) are packing up and changing houses yet again, this time to a small flat above a Glasgow chip shop. We hear the boy in voiceover, reading from a letter, but his silence is legion everywhere else. That's because Frankie is deaf and mute, although, as a "champion lip reader," the kid doesn't miss much.

As the trio settles in, the plot moves simultaneously to reveal the first twist and to establish the prevailing mystery. For reasons as yet undisclosed, Lizzie has long been separated from Frankie's father. But she's chosen to encase her son in the protective shell of what Ibsen called an "efficacious life-life." She's told him that his Dad toils on a ship, travels year-round, but loves him dearly, as evidenced by the regular letters sent from abroad. Of course, Mom is the one writing the letters and encouraging the boy's replies. The ruse seems airtight, until an excited Frankie learns that his imaginary father's real ship just happens to be docking at the Glasgow port. How to sustain the lie now?


If this already sounds a bit contrived, prepare to score low on the litmus test and brace yourself for more manipulation to come. Lizzie's solution to the crisis is to hire a hitherto unknown man to pose as Frankie's daddy for the duration of the ship's stay. Simply named The Stranger (Gerard Butler), he does the job with such loving conviction that first the son and then the mother become enchanted with him. Yet, inevitably, hovering somewhere in the background are the figure of the actual father and the mystery of his absence. Can't give it away, but I can assure you that the eventual resolution does nothing to diminish the melodramatic load.

Yes, heaps of pure melodrama, but here's the intriguing thing. Both the performances and the direction deftly undercut the mounting artifice at every turn. It's like watching a schmaltzy fairytale served up as kitchen-sink realism. Granny, for example, is a chain-smoking pragmatist forever threatening to burst the boy's bubble of illusion. Also, Mortimer places Lizzie within a cocoon of anxious reserve, quiet yet troubled, her placid surface masking a deep well of psychosexual tension. Butler's Stranger is equally subdued, almost dour at times, shielding his good deed under a veneer of curious restraint.

And McElhone, a terrific child actor, turns Frankie himself into a quiet little puzzle, one of those self-contained children who smiles rarely and seems born to bear the wisdom of the ages. In her first feature, director Shona Auerbach wields the camera in perfect lock-step with her cast. She shoots several key scenes without dialogue and in complete silence, advancing the action strictly by visual means and, consequently, forcing us to do what Frankie does to hear with our eyes.

Effective, too, is her use of locations, where the industrial grimness of the shipyards competes with the surprising lyricism of the surrounding hills. The setting, then, becomes a neat mirror of the whole film, reflecting the same hard-and-soft contrasts.

Usually, in film and literature, such contrasts work in the reverse direction. Jacques Demy in his musical, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, or Andrew Marvell in his pastoral sequence,

The Mower Poems, are both injecting pessimistic content into a traditionally optimistic form. Auerbach does just the opposite, wrapping the sentimental stuff in an incongruously dark package. Or, to shift the image, Dear Frankie gives us a spoonful of medicine to make the sugar go down. Depending on your tolerance, it just may go down a treat.

 


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