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Phantom Fathers

Category: Dear Frankie Reviews
Article Date: March 22, 2005 | Publication: NY Observer | Author: Rex Reed

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For the perfect lump of sugar to stabilize so much acid, the British film Dear Frankie is a soft-hearted but soberly made little movie that gives sentimentality a good name. Frankie is a 9-year-old deaf child whose abusive father deserted the family, leaving the lonely son he never knew to be raised by a struggling single mom and a nicotine-addicted grandmother who always pretends the man of the house is perennially away at sea. Frankie’s well-meaning mother Lizzie (the splendid Emily Mortimer, who looks amazingly like Margot Kidder) keeps the boy’s spirits up by writing him affectionate letters he believes are from his missing dad—and even encloses exotic stamps from foreign ports. As a result, the boy is obsessed with all things nautical while living ashore with the two women above a fish-and-chips shop where the meals are a sorry substitute for the adventurous marine life of his fantasies. Lizzie has devoted so many years to the hoax that Frankie’s father is a good man who loves his son that she has sadly lost hope of any life of her own. Complications arise on the day a real merchant ship called the H.M.S. Accra (the name of the vessel she made up) docks in the Glasgow harbor, and the false image of Frankie’s dad that Lizzie has created threatens to blow up in her face unless she finds a man who is willing to pretend he is Frankie’s father for a day of shore leave.

Of course, the bloke she hires not only plays the role to the hilt, but enhances the elaborate fiction in his own charming way, wins the hearts of both the boy and his mother, and transforms their lives. Played by handsome, charismatic hunk Gerard Butler, the doomed but sexy Phantom in Phantom of the Opera, this warm, sympathetic stranger may be too perfect to be true, but the feel-good effect is so bracing that I don’t think you’ll mind. His invitation to join the family triangle for the bogus "reunion" injects a massive dose of what everyone’s been missing into the household dynamic. His mixture of masculinity and vulnerability sends shock waves through Lizzie’s tightly constructed little universe and gives Frankie a new star status in the Boys Who Have Dads Club. When he leaves, the people on the screen are not the only ones with tears in their eyes. Life resumes on a happier plane until Frankie’s real father materializes, demanding to see his son one last time before he dies of cancer. Never underestimate the intelligence of a child. Frankie has gained a wisdom more profound than any of the grownups envisioned, and Jack McElhone, the youngster who plays him, is endearingly convincing; his sweetness and humanity provides a precise and gentle ballast for the chaos around him. Shona Auerbach is a director to watch, but as a cinematographer she makes objects glow, imbued with light that bounces off water and skin, heightening the boy’s expressions as he reads lips and adding more heat to a chemistry between Ms. Mortimer and Mr. Butler that is already hot enough to fry an egg. Few things are more rewarding in movies today than a gentle, perceptive and beautifully honed exploration of the vagaries of the human heart. Dear Frankie provides this reward, and more.


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