Nov 6 2009
Dear Frankie (2004)
Gerard Butler, please stop acting in rubbish films that have heroines put in vibrating underwear and do more like this one. This film is wonderful. And it’s wonderful without overdoing the important moments or slathering on the pathos in order to yank on our heartstrings.
Lizzie Morrison (Emily Mortimer) has carried on a deception for years. When her son was a baby, she took him and fled her abusive husband. Living with her mother, Nell (Mary Riggans), they’ve moved from town to town to avoid Davy. But she’s kept all this from Frankie (Jack McElhone), instead telling him his Da is a merchant sailor and writing to Frankie as if the letters come from his father.
Their latest move has taken them to Glasgow and unintentionally brought about the thing Lizzie has always worried about. The name she randomly chose for the ship Davy supposedly serves on is actually the name of a real ship and it’s coming into port soon. When Frankie’s new classmate bets him that Frankie’s Da won’t come to visit while his ship is docked, Lizzie sets out to find a stranger to play the part for a day. But the Stranger (Gerard Butler) might turn out to be more than either Frankie or Lizzie ever hoped for.
Director Shona Auerbach hit the jackpot with her cast who all turn in spot on performances. Mortimer conveys a woman who’s put up barriers against being hurt and against seeing her child get hurt. Then she has to pull them down to reach out to this stranger and allow him to know the hidden hurt of her world. For her son, she’ll do it but she still stands ready to defend Frankie and the lie she’s perpetuated to give him some contact with a father.
Butler displays an awkwardness one would expect of a man trying to pull a fast one on a 9 year old child. But then slowly warms and thaws to the role of being an absentee father beginning with watching Frankie at football then finding him the perfect stone to skip across the water. Later he’s the one who wheedles Lizzie into allowing him to spend one more day with the two of them, extending his role of having this family for a brief moment longer.
But McElhone, as Frankie, steals the film. He’s not above using his deafness to get his way, as with a librarian he guilts into letting him check out more books but he’s a decent kid who actually knows far more than he lets his mother think he does. And he can hold his own against the classmate Ricky played by Sean Brown with cheeky charm. Frankie also has a girlfriend of sorts, Catriona (Jayd Johnson) who defends him against Ricky then gets him into trouble herself with her knowledge of where mothers store things in order to hide them.
Everything about the film is subtle and scaled perfectly. There’s no overblown orchestral score or soaring violins to hammer us with the knowledge that this is an Important Emotional Moment in the film. The music backs up the acting and the acting is done with finesse. There are looks and glances, spacing to emphasis the awkward first meeting between Lizzie and the Stranger and time to catch the shock on the Stranger’s face when he finally learns why Frankie’s real Da isn’t part of his life.
When I rented the film, I wasn’t expecting much beyond some nice eye candy moments from Butler. I hoped that it wouldn’t be too mushy or maudlin. I hoped that the ending wouldn’t pull out all the stops to manipulate me and force the film into a “feel good” resolution. The film avoids the pitfalls I was worried about and still gives me eye candy. It’s a film that uses silence and physical space to let the actors tell the tale. It’s a charmer and a film I’m glad I took a chance on.
This is currently available in DVD form but it ain’t cheap so my thanks to Susanna Kearsley for pointing out that it’s posted on youtube.