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Deceit forges family’s bond

Category: Dear Frankie Reviews
Article Date: May 20, 2005 | Publication: The News Tribune | Author: NEIL DAVIDSON

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Lies told in the name of love are at the core of “Dear Frankie.”

They’re elaborate lies. They’re inventive lies. They’re lies written by a Scottish mother to her son to shield him from painful truths about his long-absent father.

In director Shona Auerbach’s lovely rendering of a bittersweet screenplay by Scottish writer Andrea Gibb, 9-year-old Frankie (Jack McElhone) is emotionally sustained by letters he believes are sent to him from exotic ports of call by his sailor dad.

The boy, often uprooted by his highly protective mother, Lizzie (Emily Mortimer), who moves from town to town for reasons that are only revealed late in the picture, is further isolated by the fact that he’s deaf.

Always being the new kid in school, and having a disability besides, makes Frankie introspective. He lives much of his life inside his head, and pours his thoughts and feelings into the long letters he writes his father.

But the replies, though signed “Dad,” are written by Lizzie. The deception has been going on for years. But when a schoolmate tells Frankie that his father’s supposed ship will be sailing into port, Lizzie fears she’s about to be found out.

She fears even more that when her son learns the truth, he’ll be heartbroken and will regard her ever after with deep distrust.

So, with the help of a co-worker named Marie (Sharon Small), Lizzie recruits a stranger (Gerard Butler) to play, for a day or two, the father Frankie hasn’t seen since infancy. As you might imagine, things get complicated.

The boy is spirited. The mother is melancholic. And the stranger is an enigma.

Who is this guy and what’s behind his decision to be a father for a day or two? The risks of this arrangement are obvious, and are enunciated by Lizzie’s mother, Nell (Mary Riggans), who has long disapproved of the deception and disappoves even more of bringing a stranger into the family’s tight-knit web of relationships.

With great delicacy, Auerbach and Gibb put their focus on the boy’s deep-seated yearning for a father’s presence in his life – and on the mother’s understanding of his need, and her sad realization that for all her efforts to protect and nurture him, she will never be able to fill that void.

The acting in all roles is exemplary. Mortimer brings an affecting combination of grace, sadness and pluck to her portrayal of Lizzie.

In the family’s dreary apartment, Lizzie and Nell share some wonderfully genuine moments, contentious yet affectionate in the unique manner of mother-daughter interactions.

As the taciturn surrogate dad, Butler carefully reveals a caring soul beneath a hard outer shell.

Young McElhone conveys Frankie’s hopeful, loving spirit with affecting naturalness. He’s truly a dear. The movie likewise. * * * *


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