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'Dear Frankie' gets you right in the haggis

Category: Dear Frankie Reviews
Article Date: March 22, 2005 | Publication: Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper | Author: Richard von Busack
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WEE WITHOUT being really twee, Dear Frankie is built for audiences craving adorable foreign kids striving through life, with a finale that works the tear ducts like pepper spray. The film boasts the added appeal of black-eyed, elfin-chinned Emily Mortimer as Lizzie, a mum on the run with her codgerly but hard-edged mom. Together, the two women raise Frankie (Jack McElhone), a 9-year-old boy. He's unable to hear, but he can read lips. He speaks as little as possible, since he's ashamed of his deaf person's voice. Still, Frankie is so good-natured that when a bully scrawls "DEF BOY" on his desk, Frankie corrects his spelling.

Since he was old enough to understand, Lizzie has lied and told Frankie that his absent father is a sailor aboard the SS Accra. To bolster this story, Lizzie forges paternal letters to her son, bedecking them with foreign stamps from a collector's shop. Such a lie is bound to be discovered. So it is when a real SS Accra is due to arrive in Glasgow harbor. Panicked, Lizzie resolves to hire a man with "no past and no future" to play the father Frankie has never seen.

There are parts of the British Isles where not much has happened since 1954, and director Shona Auerbach discovered one such place. Post-industrial Glasgow sleeps its big sleep. The camera casts its eye on chip-shop queues and coal-smoked stones and a tea shop furnished in what looks like the more studiously French furniture from a Goodwill's best (all is lost, save snobbery). Auerbach heightens this sense of time standing still by working in a palette of austere dark browns. In short, Dear Frankie is enough to make you crave the carnival colors of Vera Drake. The singing of car alarms and the bully's human beatbox dance remind us that we're in 2005 or so, even when this father-for-hire story pulls us into the past of movies.

The hired father, played by Gerard Butler, is billed as "The Stranger"; the Stranger is a big improvement over the Phantom or, previous to that, the Vampire. (Butler was but one poor fish swimming upstream in the turbulence of Phantom of the Opera and Van Helsing.) After Dear Frankie, one would have a better shot at picking him out of a crowd. There's a type of machismo that never looks fake when the Scots pull it. For a time, the movie gets a shot of much-needed male energy, but then Butler starts to show a bit of awareness. His character is more interesting when he is sitting and listening than when he becomes aware that he is being watched by Lizzie.

The movie has its slick qualities. We're not really exposed to the selfish underside of a mom who would tell such an elaborate lie to her child. Still, Andrea Gibb's script is tight; the cruelty of Frankie's real father is explained in less than a dozen terse, bitten-off words. And the first words Frankie says makes your eyes smart, even if you're smart enough to know better.

Dear Frankie (PG-13; 105 min.), directed by Shona Auerbach, written by Andrea Gibb, photographed by Auerbach and starring Emily Mortimer, Gerald Butler and Jack McElhone, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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