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Frankly teardrop

Category: Dear Frankie News
Article Date: March 23, 2005 | Publication: Eye.net | Author: JASON ANDERSON
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Shona Auerbach weighs out a frugal Scot weepie
DEAR FRANKIE

Starring Emily Mortimer, Jack McElhone. Written by Andrea Gibb. Directed by Shona Auerbach. (PG) 105 min. Opens Mar 25.

The tale of a desperate mother, her deaf son and a mysterious stranger, Dear Frankie works hard to squeeze tears from your eyes. Thankfully, the movie deserves most of them.

The first feature by British director Shona Auerbach stars Emily Mortimer as Lizzie, a young Scottish woman who is utterly devoted to the welfare of her Frankie (Jack McElhone), a nine-year-old who doesn't allow his hearing problem to get in the way of his interests. Lizzie can't tell Frankie that the reason they move house so often is that they're on the run from his abusive father. Lizzie encourages the boy to believe his father is a kind-hearted sailor by sending him phony letters. When Frankie learns the boat his father is supposedly on is coming to Glasgow, Lizzie hires a stranger (Phantom of the Opera hunk Gerald Butler) to participate in a well-intentioned but foolhardy ruse.

Though its combination of social-realist drama, romantic fantasy and old-fashioned weepie risks being overbearing, Dear Frankie stays on the right side of sentimental. That's largely due to the subtlety of the performances, the careful use of the Glaswegian locations and Auerbach's ability to keep the story's contrivances grounded in scenes that feel emotionally true. It also rates as a distinctive debut by the director, who first encountered the story when she read Andrea Gibb's script for a short-film version eight years ago.

"I was very drawn to it because it captured that unconditional love someone could have for someone else," says Auerbach in a phone interview from her home near London. "It wasn't just the mother-son thing -- it was the lengths people go to when they love someone else. They don't always get it right and can sometimes get themselves in a mess. To be honest, the mother-son thing did hit a nerve because I was quite broody at the time about having my own family."

During the long process of developing the script with Gibb, Auerbach had two kids. Understandably, the experience gave her deeper insight into Lizzie's actions. "As a parent, you have this built-in protective instinct you can't control," she says. "Sometimes you get into a situation where you are forced to tell a lie or avoid the truth for protective reasons."

Yet the relationship between Lizzie and Frankie also reveals the ways in which children protect their parents, too. "Kids do that without you realizing," says Auerbach. "Part of the film draws from an old friend of mine who had a very similar story to Lizzie's. I ended up drawing on quite a lot of the pain she has gone through and how her own child ended up quite protective of the mum."

Mortimer and McElhone succeed at capturing that curious dynamic. When Auerbach was casting the film, she was very aware that the actors had to be plausible together as mother and son. "There was no doubt in my mind that they worked," she says. "Emily made a big effort to get to know Jack. She had a day out with him beforehand and tried to have some normality with him. She got on the right level with him."

Equally plausible is McElhone's attempt to convey Frankie's experience of the world. "There's always something you've got to learn for your part," says Auerbach. "His was a combination of learning sign language and understanding the issues surrounding deafness, everything down to eye contact. Getting that right was absolutely crucial. I went to deaf clubs with Jack and we had two deaf advisers. Jack really got his head around it. He understood what he had to do."

Given the subject matter and emotional terrain, the obvious challenge for the director is trying to decide how much feeling is enough for a scene -- it's easy to go too saccharine. "As a director you have to find your line and try never to cross over it, even when you feel like you're being pressured to," says Auerbach. "I think it helped me a lot having such a great editor [Oral Nottie Ottey]. We had a similar sensitivity for knowing what was too far. But we still got very emotional many times in the edit suite. That meant the heart was in it 100 per cent."

The Czech film Kolya was one model for Dear Frankie and it's little surprise that both movies were picked up by Miramax, which has always had a jones for mawkish foreign fare. But Auerbach's movie is superior to most examples of what's been derisively tagged "Miramax porn." Instead, it has some of the same unfussy, bittersweet charm as another of Auerbach's inspirations, Lasse Hallström's My Life as a Dog. "That film has always resonated with me," she says. "It's always had something very, very special. Again, it felt like it never stepped over the line... but it got really close."

 


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