Lizzy (Emily Mortimer) and her deaf, 9-and-a-half-year old son Frankie (Jack McElhone) are living a secret life near the docks in Glasgow, Scotland. Jack was told, many years before by his mother, that his father is a merchant seaman traveling the world and writes his dad every week with all the news from home. What he doesn’t know is that his mom is intercepting the letters and responding as the boy’s father. The charade has worked for years until Frankie is told that his dad’s ship is coming to town and Lizzy must think of an even more elaborate scheme to hide the truth in “Dear Frankie.”
First time feature helmer (doing double duty as cinematographer, too) Shona Auerbach comes out of the gate with a warm, intelligent and hopeful little family story that tugs at the heart without, in the end, being overly sentimental and smarmy. Working from the screenplay by Andrea Gibb, Auerbach utilizes her small, talented cast to good affect, telling Frankie’s story through the eyes of the young boy.
You learn right from the start that Frankie is deaf. But, don’t be fooled by the boy’s “handicap.” Beneath the silent surface is an intelligent youngster with a thirst for knowledge, particularly geography, and, most importantly, he has a first-rate ability to read lips. He may not be able to say much through speech, but Frankie is able to speak volumes in his letters to his dad – letters that Lizzy now depends on as they are the only way she has to hear her son’s “voice.”
Lizzy has pulled off her deception-out-of-love for years, writing to Frankie from all parts of her fictional husband’s world, telling stories of his adventures in far-flung lands. But, when his rival and friend” at school, Ricky Monroe (Sean Brown), tells Frankie that his father’s ship, the Accra, will soon dock in Glasgow, the boy is both elated and frightened. He is thrilled that his father will soon be home but fears that the man will not want to see him.
Lizzy is desperate to keep Frankie in the dark about his real father, a man who abused his son when he was small and caused his deafness, She concocts a plan to bring a stranger in to pose as the long from home seaman/father. Her attempt to find a proxy candidate fails miserably and she confides in her friend, Marie (Sharon Small), the owner of a local fish and chips shop. Marie promises to help but Lizzy grows increasingly anxious as the Accra’s docking day fast approaches.
Marie comes through and Lizzy has a meeting with the stranger (Gerard Butler) who has agreed to be Frankie’s surrogate father for a day. The handsome, taciturn man without a history arrives at their home and is immediately mistrusted by Lizzy’s mother, Nell (Mary Riggins). Bur, Frankie is thrilled to have his dad finally come home and they set off on the town to get to know each other. Protective Lizzy surreptitiously follows them to make sure her son is safe.
Helmer Auerbach continues her tale of hope but, as the story unfolds, you are taken in by the subtle intelligence of the story and the nuance of the characters, especially Frankie. What strikes me most about the screenplay is that it does not try to wrap things up neatly and obviously. Instead, the warm tale of a mother’s love for her son is also a character study of Frankie as he uses his deafness as a tool to be used to his advantage when necessary. Smartly, the script establishes Frankie as a top-notch lip reader and, as such, the complexity of extensive sign language is not required, helping the storytelling pace considerably.
The tiny cast is anchored by the performance of young thespian Jack McElhone. Immediately after seeing the film, I looked up the youngster’s biography and, to my surprise, found that he has been acting since he was a small child. McElhone’s performance is so convincing that I really believed him to be deaf. It is a marvelously complex and believable perf by one so young.
The adult actors aren’t given the depth of character that young Frankie possesses but they all give weight to their performances. Emily Mortimer plays Lizzy as strong and protective but with a vulnerability that is never far from the surface. Gerard Butler, best known here in the US as the Phantom in the film, “Phantom of the Opera,” is reticent when he first arrives and completely taken aback when Frankie rushes up and hugs him hard. As the walls of his taciturnity crumble he is taken in by the honest love of the boy and his role-playing takes on new, caring dimensions.
Mary Riggins gives an amusing turn as Frankie’s chain-smoking grandma who thinks that Lizzy is wrong in deceiving her son but still goes along with the sham. (The actress also showed, here, an uncanny resemblance to American actress Brenda Vaccaro.) Sharon Small gives some depth to her small role as Marie, the catalyst who brings the principles together. (Small, in turn, bears a strong similarity to actress Pamela Reed, making me think that Glasgow may be a Mecca for underutilized American thespians.)
Auerbach lends a deft directorial hand her first time out of the gate and also does a fine job as cinematographer. She captures the Glasgow environs in with crisp lensing and muted use of color that make it inviting. Techs, in general, belie the obviously small budget.
Dear Frankie” is a fresh faced film about hope and belief that stirs your heart without having it needlessly wrung out. Jack McElhone, in almost totally silent role, gives one of the best performances of the year thus far. I give it a B+.
Lizzie (Emily Mortimer, "Young Adam") has been on the run from her husband for over seven years, moving from place to place with her mother Nell (Brenda Vaccaro lookalike Mary Riggans) and nine year-old son. Having found a place above a Glasgow fish and chips shop, Lizzie enrolls Frankie (Jack McElhone, "Young Adam"), who is deaf, into a new school and begins working at Marie's (Pamela Reed lookalike Sharon Small, "About a Boy") restaurant. Lizzie has created a fairy tale father for her son, a man who corresponds from a ship in letters that begin "Dear Frankie."
Screenwriter Andrea Gibb has fashioned a tender tale about the bond between mother and son, which director (and cinematographer) Shona Auerbach, in her feature debut, allows to build at its own determined pace. The result is a lovely, somewhat melancholy little film with a powerful ending and a lingering mood of wistfulness.
Nell believes that Lizzie should tell Frankie the truth about his abusive father, but it is clear that Frankie delights in the global correspondence and the stamp collection he is building from it and because Frankie prefers writing and signing over speech, Lizzie feels that his letters to his 'dad' are the only way she can hear his voice. Frankie charts his dad's ship, the Accra, on a map on his bedroom wall, but the ship's far away when his schoolmate, Ricky Monroe (Sean Brown), shows him a newspaper clipping announcing the vessel's arrival in Glasgow. Frankie bets Ricky his stamp collection that his dad will be at Saturday's football match, but when he's with pal Catriona (Jayd Johnson), wonders why his dad never said he was coming. When Lizzie catches wind of this, she decides to find a man with 'no past, no present and no future' to pose as the seafaring father who does not exist. Marie arranges a meeting with a stranger (Gerard Butler, "The Phantom of the Opera") who fits the bill and thrills young Frankie no end just as Lizzie is contacted by her beseeching sister-in-law (Anne Marie Timoney, "Young Adam") with news that her husband is dying and wants to see his son.
"Dear Frankie" takes a page from such preceding well-intentioned, deceitful correspondence films as the recent "Since Otar Left" and 1980's "I Sent a Letter to My Love." It shares a tonal quality with the former, where the demise of a past way of life frees its characters in their letting go, and an atmospheric kinship with the latter, which took place on the grey-blue hued Northwest coast of France. Production designer Jennifer Kernke ("Angels & Insects") could have found her whole motif in the crackled tiling of the downstairs entry to Frankie's flat which depicts ocean going vessels in greens and blues. (Glasgow is a ship-building city, but "Dear Frankie" was mostly shot in Greenock on the Clyde, just west of the city, allowing for more green, open spaces and water views.)
The elfin Mortimer carries a look of pinched worry, which can disappear in a flash as she communicates with her son or slowly melt as she lowers her guard against a man with no past. Young McElhone conveys inquisitive intelligence and thoughtfulness, fleshing out a character with only three words of dialogue. Butler is perfect as the tall, dark handsome stranger, another man of few words but great perception. The cast is neatly rounded with the old school practicality Riggans brings to Nell and the more modern, fun-loving warmth of Small.
Auerbach and Gibb make strong filmmaking debuts, letting restraint and ambiguity work more magic than traditional Hollywood storytelling. The director has a great command of her cast and her location. "Dear Frankie" is a film that fully engages with the search for a 'champion skimmer' and defines its characters so subtly that they surprise us when they act just the way we've been told they should.
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