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Hope springs eternal in charming family drama

Category: Dear Frankie Reviews
Article Date: April 4, 2005 | Publication: The Now Newspaper.Com | Author: Julie Crawford

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Directed by Shona Auerbach. Starring Emily Mortimer, Jack McElhone and Gerard Butler. Rating: 8 out of 10

First-time director Shona Auerbach understands what some directors never learn: that the space between words is as important as the words themselves.

We see that in one shot in Dear Frankie, in particular: A man and woman lean against either side of a doorframe for what seems like forever. They say nothing, but their silence communicates all the broken promises, troubles and disappointments of their lives.

The woman is Lizzie (Emily Mortimer), a young woman on the run from her violent ex-husband. Each move uproots her deaf nine-year-old son Frankie (Jack McElhone) and her mum (Mary Riggans), who moves with them "to make sure she doesn't go back."

Lizzie knows the truth, but Frankie thinks his dad is a merchant seaman travelling the world aboard a ship called the Accra. Lizzie writes letters and goes to elaborate lengths to conceal Frankie's dad's true nature. Besides, she says of the letters her mute son writes back, "it's the only way I get to hear his voice."

Things are going well until the Accra drops anchor in Scotland, and Frankie expects a meeting with his dad. Out of desperation, through her friend Marie (Sharon Small) Lizzie hires a stranger (Gerard Butler) to impersonate her ex-husband for a day.

"No past, no present, no future," is the business-only arrangement made between Lizzie and the man, whose name we never discover. But Frankie works wonders on this gruff stranger, who warms to the boy and his mother. And Lizzie's lie, years in the making, threatens to unravel.

It does take a leap of faith to accept that Frankie and the man bond as quickly as they do: if I were Frankie's mum I'd follow them around to be on the safe side, too. Likewise, no matter how damaged and lonely Lizzie and the sailor are, we know that their kiss in the doorway is somewhat premature.

But the acting makes us believe in the relationship among the members of this sad little trio. What threatens to become a sugary-sweet tearjerker thanks to occasionally corny dialogue (with lines like "remember, we're all connected") is saved by all the actors, who shade their performances in subtle tones that don't overwhelm the viewer. Mortimer is perfect in her role, young Jack McElhone brings a rare maturity to a difficult role, and Butler - seen here without his Phantom of the Opera makeup - proves he's the hottest Scottish export since Ewan McGregor. Mortimer and McElhone have worked together before, in David Mackenzie's Young Adam.

Scots in particular will get a kick out of authentic touches, from typically Scottish turns-of-phrase to the tilework in the tenement and the fine art of skipping stones.

Hope springs eternal, nowhere so much as in the ending, where a somewhat far-fetched realization on Frankie's part leaves room for at least the possibility of happiness.

It has its failings, but overall Dear Frankie is a charming film about how to hear the words unspoken.


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