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Honest Emotions: Charming 'Dear Frankie' Triggers Audience Sniffles the Old-fashioned Way: It Earns Them

Category: Dear Frankie Reviews
Article Date: April 15, 2005 | Publication: REVIEW-JOURNAL | Author: CAROL CLING

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It must be something in the water.

Something that counteracts potential saccharine overload and transforms potentially syrupy scripts into winsome cinematic tales.

Or maybe it's the brisk British weather.

Whatever the reason, "Dear Frankie" emerges as the second British movie in as many weeks to bring a smile to your face -- and a tear to your eye -- without putting you through a wringer first.

Last week's entry, "Millions," presents a far more fanciful tale -- and represents a far more assured piece of filmmaking, thanks to director Danny Boyle's visual flair.

But this week's contestant, "Dear Frankie," boasts its own quiet, hardscrabble charms.

As in "Millions," this drama centers on a bright young lad coping with loss. In "Millions," it's the death of a mother. In "Dear Frankie," it's the prolonged absence of the title character's father.

Where -- and why -- he's gone is a matter the movie takes its time to reveal.

Initially, all we know is that 9-year-old Frankie (Jack McElhone, previously seen in "Young Adam") has just moved with his mother Lizzie (Emily Mortimer, a subtle standout in everything from "Lovely & Amazing" to "Young Adam") and grandmother (Mary Riggans) to a new flat in Greenock, Scotland.

It's not the first time they've moved, and it probably won't be the last. For now, however, Frankie faces yet another new school -- and yet another round of new-kid-in-class trauma, compounded by the fact that he's deaf.

Not that his hearing problems slow Frankie down -- much. He's a champion lip-reader, and while he never says anything, he's got his own ways of communicating.

Especially in letters he writes to his father, who's supposedly off seeing the world from the deck of a merchant ship.

The letters his father writes to Frankie, however, come from a different source considerably closer to home: Lizzie herself, who conjures the wondrous sights and sounds of a wide, wide world from her narrow existence.

That is, until the day a cheeky classmate informs Frankie that his father's ship will dock in Glasgow soon -- prompting Lizzie to cast about for someone to play the role of Frankie's long-lost dad.

Lizzie's employer and friend Marie (Sharon Small of PBS' "Inspector Lynley Mysteries"), who runs the chip shop down the street, obliges by finding a rugged, brooding seaman ("The Phantom of the Opera's" Gerard Butler), making a Glasgow stopover, to play the role.

If this were a "Hallmark Hall of Fame" production, "Dear Frankie" would stack the deck so this instant family could find an instant happily-ever-after ending to match.

But screenwriter Andrea Gibb (who expanded a script she wrote for a short subject) has something else on her agenda. Make that somethings else, because "Dear Frankie" manages to bring welcome complexity to a deceptively modest package.

For all its far-fetched plotting -- and there are times when "Dear Frankie" definitely pushes the credibility envelope -- the movie maintains its emotional truth through every far-fetched twist.

Moreover, director-cinematographer Shona Auerbach maintains crucial control of the movie's delicate mood, expertly shifting between tender, fleeting moments of happiness and a rueful resignation that those moments represent inevitably brief respites from the usual slings and arrows of existence.

Auerbach, who began as a photographer before shifting to directing commercials, also demonstrates a keen eye, contrasting gritty streets and docks with the more elusive beauty to be found along the shoreline.

Most importantly, however, she proves adept at balancing "Dear Frankie's" impressive, subtly expressive cast, blending contributions as different as Small's impulsive warmth and Riggans' grizzled wisdom.

Butler, "Phantom of the Opera's" man behind the mask, here reveals not only a compelling presence but a gruff sensitivity that, together, echo the movie's overall tone.

The key to the movie's ultimate success, however, rests with Mortimer and McElhone, who forge a wary yet completely credible bond.

In some ways, Mortimer's skittish Lizzie seems more childlike than her son, thanks to the clash between her quicksilver spirit and her fierce, unquenchable desire to protect Frankie.

Yet the precocious Frankie knows, even better than his mother, that no one can protect you from everything, no matter how hard they try. And, no matter how much it hurts, it's probably better that way.

"Dear Frankie" illustrates these elusive truths with notable compassion and delicate emotional detail.

It may have you reaching for your Kleenex at the end, but at least "Dear Frankie" triggers audience sniffles the old-fashioned way: it earns them.


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