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"Dear Frankie"

Category: Dear Frankie Reviews
Article Date: April 23, 2005 | Publication: Davis Enterprise | Author: Derrick Bang

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Four stars.

This seems to be the month for enchanting little films from across the pond.

Danny Boyle's "Millions" opened locally last week, and today it's followed by director/cinematographer Shona Auerbach's achingly poignant "Dear Frankie," a film as grounded in harsh reality as "Millions" is layered with fantasy.

This one also focuses on a young boy, in this case the eponymous 9-year-old lad who lives for the letters he both sends to and receives from the father he doesn't know: a career sailor never quite able to catch up to Frankie, his mother and grandmother, because it seems they're always on the move.

Andrea Gibb's script is simultaneously fanciful but painfully credible, and it's a tribute to all concerned that "Dear Frankie" somehow remains uplifting and sweet, despite its many melancholy and even tragic elements. Gibb's narrative details an unusual family dynamic such as that portrayed with similar sensitivity in the 1997 Czech film "Koyla," which Gibb admits is the kind of film she wanted to make.

She and Auerbach definitely succeeded.

It gradually becomes clear that Lizzie (Emily Mortimer) has kept on the run with her young son - never staying in one town long enough to be traced and then caught - because she fears his father. Having just landed in the small and mildly dilapidated ship-building community of Greenock, on Scotland's Clyde Coast, Lizzie lucks into a new job thanks to Marie (Sharon Small), who manages the diner/fish and chips shop below where our protagonists live.

While all this movement would have caused most children to withdraw, Frankie (Jack McElhone) remains an uncharacteristically cheerful boy, despite the added stigma of being deaf. It's hard enough to be the new kid in an endless succession of schools, but he also stands out because of his hearing aids. Even so, Frankie remains irrepressible; when a classroom pest scrawls "Def boy" on his desk, Frankie tolerantly smiles and adds the "A" to correct the spelling ... much to the other kid's disgust.

The secret of Frankie's equanimity lies with Lizzie, who for years has maintained a protective charade, encouraging Frankie to write letters to his father who, he has been told, works aboard a ship traveling to exotic lands. In truth, Lizzie intercepts all these letters, reads and then answers them herself, pretending to be Frankie's father. The boy has tracked his father's progress on a huge map of the world that he mounts in his bedroom.

As Lizzie confesses, at one point, she started this process as much to warm her own heart as to protect her son's memory of his father; reading Frankie's letters is the one way she still hears the boy's voice, which has remained silent for many years. Indeed, it's also the only way we viewers hear Frankie, as he narrates his letters in voice-over. His "conversations" with family, friends and acquaintances are a mixture of sign language and pantomime.

Lizzie's gruffly affectionate mother, Nell (Mary Riggans), disapproves of this complex charade but holds her tongue; she'd vastly prefer that Frankie know the truth - about why they're constantly uprooting themselves - because living a lie can have nothing but unhappy consequences somewhere down the line. The deeply conflicted Lizzie recognizes the dangers of her scheme, but stubbornly insists that it's better to keep Frankie within a protective cocoon of benevolent deceit.

Grim candor always can be postponed a little bit longer.

Or maybe not.

Thanks to the scornful interest of that same schoolyard tormentor, Frankie learns - to Lizzie's dismay - that the ship on which his father (supposedly) works is scheduled to dock in Greenock in a few days. Scrambling to maintain the charade, Lizzie decides to layer the contrivance even further ... and that's when the many character dynamics in this stirring little tale really kick into gear.

"Dear Frankie" sells its premise, and its characters, because of Auerbach's no-frills, somewhat austere approach and naturalistic camerawork. I intend no disparagement by acknowledging the film's small budget, which makes everything seem that much more authentic.

Desperation hangs over these characters like a cloud. Mortimer's face always appears pinched, her nose slightly red, as if every day of filming took place during conditions that were a bit too cold (which, of course, adds to her character's hand-to-mouth lifestyle). She's an impressively guileless actress, with Lizzie's raw hopes and concerns plainly exposed on her face ... except when she interacts with her son, at which point she bravely reconstructs the artifice.

Although quite busy, most of the roles in which we've seen Mortimer here in the States aren't necessarily showy: opposite Bruce Willis in "The Kid," part of the ensemble casts in "Notting Hill" and "Love's Labour's Lost." Her best film work hasn't resonated on this side of the pond: "Young Adam," "Bright Young Things" and "Lovely & Amazing."

Small, on the other hand, will be recognized immediately as Barbara Havers in television's "Inspector Lynley Mysteries." Despite her popularity on this ongoing series and other television work, "Dear Frankie" is only her second feature film; she also had a small but unforgettable supporting role in "About a Boy," as Hugh Grant's sister. Marie isn't much of a stretch for Small, whose easy camaraderie with Frankie feels much like Havers' growing relationship with the little girl who lives in the adjacent flat.

Young McElhone nails an impressive wealth of emotions in an extremely difficult role, since Frankie communicates his various moods without speaking, most often through his expressive eyes.

The cast is rounded out by Gerard Butler, recently dominating overblown Hollywood eye-candy such as "Lara Croft 2" and the film version of "Phantom of the Opera," but here honoring his Glasgow roots with a scruffy, sensitively rendered, somewhat mysterious role that has just as many unexpected layers as McElhone's performance.

Those who embrace cinema for its ability to touch our hearts will be charmed - and then some - by "Dear Frankie," yet another telling reminder that when it comes to sensitive storytelling (Hollywood, are you listening?), less is more.

Rated PG-13, and rather harshly, for brief profanity


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