Dear Frankie (2004)
Frankie's Mail Role Model
I was looking for a man... a stranger. No past, no present, no future - Lizzie
For the most Shona Auerbach's "Dear Frankie" feels like a very middle of the road British film, neither very interesting nor offensive, just very average. It's the sort of movie which you could end up turning off as it honestly doesn't feel like it's going anywhere, especially for the first half of the movie. But come the second half, comes a much more interesting movie which has some wonderful scenes and a twist which for even a hardened movie goer like myself was unexpected. Comparing "Dear Frankie" to something similar such as an adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel would be doing Sparks an injustice but it does have similarities.
Having spent the best part of his life on the move 9 year old Frankie (Jack McElhone) only knows his dad through the letters they regularly exchange. Every few weeks a letter arrives for him from his dad containing exotic stamps and tales of the various countries he visits as a sailor on the HMS Accra. But the truth is Frankie's mother, Lizzie (Emily Mortimer - Bright Young Things), has been sending the letters hiding the truth about Frankie's violent dad from him. But when she learns that the HMS Accra is going to be docking at the port they now live by she decides to carry on with the masquerade and finds a stranger (Gerard Butler - One More Kiss) who is willing to pretend to play daddy for a day.
In many ways "Dear Frankie" feels very much like a drama made for British TV. It features the grimness of life just above the poverty line in a port town in Scotland as well as focussing on a series of recognizable characters which could have been picked directly from any town. It is the plainness of the setting and in many ways the characters which are the movie's downfall. In a day where movie goers rarely want to watch the bleakness of reality a movie which actually focuses on it, no matter how interesting, will undoubtedly be over looked. Which in the case of "Dear Frankie" is a shame as its honest approach to telling a story is surprisingly charming and that it focuses on the relationships between a select number of people rather than on some convoluted and obvious romance adds to the movies intrigue.
Despite feeling average, debut director Shona Auerbach has done a good job of reeling in "Dear Frankie", avoiding going down the obvious route, instead using the natural emotional impact of the situation to keep you engrossed. There is plenty of opportunity for Auerbach to overplay elements such as Frankie's deafness or the domestic violence side which causes Frankie and Lizzie to keep moving. But instead she only acknowledges these and doesn't pull the audiences sentimental strings by over capitalizing on them.
In one of the nicest scenes in "Dear Frankie" Lizzie explains to "the stranger", as he is known, that "Frankie wasn't born deaf. It was a gift from his daddy". In that one moment, that one line and the way both Gerard Butler and Emily Mortimer act speaks volumes and pulls you in to the emotional side of the story and why Lizzie is forced to be so protective. But more significantly it is the fact that despite the emotional nature of the moment it feels natural and not contrived purely to get an audience reaction. This is not the only scene in the movie when something small such as just a couple of words, a look or a protracted silence can give so much more meaning in its simplicity than any over the top choreographed scenario. In fact without spoiling the ending the twist is just as simple and in being so is in keeping with the rest of the movie but gives "Dear Frankie" a wonderful feel.
What really does make "Dear Frankie" so special is not so much the performances from the likes of Gerard Butler and Emily Mortimer as well as the young Jack McElhone as Frankie, it is the fact that the characters they play are real. Take Lizzie who not only looks like someone who is living just above the poverty line but exhibits those characteristics of someone who has been on the wrong end of domestic violence, someone who is scared, nervous, slightly timid yet hugely protective of her family willing to go to nearly any lengths to protect her son. It is a wonderful performance by Emily Mortimer to not spoil such a real character but it is the fact you can recognize the character as someone you may have seen makes it all the more real. It is the same with Gerard Butler as "the stranger"; it is the sort of character which you recognize, the strong silent type, the loner but who behind the facade actually has a tender side.
Add to these two strong but restrained performances from Gerard Butler and Emily Mortimer the wonderful innocent performance of Jack McElhone as Frankie as well as fine character performances from Mary Riggans as Nell and Sharon Small as Marie and you have a wonderfully cast movie.
What this all boils down to is that I would be lying if I said "Dear Frankie" was a great movie, but it is one that shows that by focussing on the simple, the meaning of words and the relationship between real characters can make for an interesting as well as heart warming tale. It is the sort of movie which for the first half may seem quite boring but is worth getting through the mediocrity to get to the much more impressive and touching second half which ups its game.
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