Monday, December 1, 2008
Dear Frankie (2004) is another of my Netflix pics. My husband and I were on the outs so he really didn't want to watch it with me. But he did anyway. Such a sport! Of course, he griped about it and his crankiness was wearing on me but we soon got into watching the previews first, then the movie credits (The soundtrack by Alex Heffes is capitivating) then suddenly we are watching a single mom (Emily Mortimer), her nine-year-old son Frankie (Jack McElhone) and her mother, a plump little woman who never stops smoking (Mary Riggans) as they settle into a small apartment in Glasgow, Scotland.
Frankie is a silent, dreamy deaf kid who uses sign language to communicate with his mother and writes notes to everybody else. He refuses to wear his hearing aid but is "a champion lip reader," according to his mom. Very quickly we learn Frankie has been getting letters from his dad since he left the family years ago. He's at sea aboard a British ship, the Accra, and sends Frankie stamps from all the places he visits when the ship docks. Frankie writes back to his dad and plots his ports of call on a big map of the world in his bedroom.
But at the same time we learn about Frankie's correspondence with his absent dad we find out that his mom is behind the letters from dad. She rents a post office box in a town a bus ride away where she picks up the letters Frankie writes to his dad.
Well, the film's plot turns on the Accra's surprise appearance off the shores of Glasgow and how Frankie's mom gets stuck with finding someone -- a stranger -- to pretend to be his dad while the ship is anchored in Glasgow's harbor.
Sound implausible? Well, it doesn't play that way, not for this woman reviewer, anyway. The film was directed by a woman, Shona Auerbach, and the script written by another woman, Andrea Gibb. It is a woman's film in that it deals with issues only women face. I won't go into all of them here. Jack McElhone and the actresses that play Frankie's mother and grandmother are pitch perfect in their depiction of a contented, though fatherless, family.
Sharon Small, who my husband and I recognized from The Inspector Lynley series on PBS's Mystery Theatre, is great in the role of a newly acquired family friend, and Gerard Butler is perfect as the bemused stranger she recruits to play the role of Frankie's long absent father.
Well, actually Gerard Butler was absolutely "brilliant," as the Brits would say, in the role of the Stranger, or the Rescuing Stranger, I should say. There he is up above, first (at left) as the Phantom in the movie version of Phantom of the Opera and then as the Spartan warrior, King Leonidas, in the film 300 (2006).
Butler's other film credits include major roles in the Christian Bale/Matthew McConaughey sci-fi flick, Reign of Fire (2002) and Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (2003). More recently he starred with Hillary Swank in P.S. I Love You (2007) and with Tom Wilkinson in the Guy Ritchie film, Rocknrolla (2008) But I find the roles in which he is pictured above to be most interesting in explaining his effectiveness as the Stranger in Dear Frankie. His role in the Phantom was conceived by Andrew Lloyd Webber for the stage musical which opened on Broadway in 1986 and which continues its uninterrupted run there today. In both the play and the movie which was adapted from it, the character touches a deep chord in the feminine psyche: the mysterious outcast, threatening and at the same time comforting, who brings The Music of the Night into the life of a young woman preparing to marry another, more conventional and socially successful man. Butler in his role as the Stranger in Frankie evokes the same emotional ambiquity and thus adds a muted but palpable tension to the plot.
The character of King Leonidas, the Spartan warrior, in 300, on the other hand, is overtly, if not stereotypically, masculine and Butler who endured round-the-clock physical training in preparation for the film embodies the role with the requisite and charismatic machismo. This quality comes across strongly in the Frankie role but in a far more subtle manner as a foil both to the boyish vulnerability of the nine-year-old Frankie and to the fiercely protective qualities of his mother Lizzie and his grandmother Nell. Butler's first appearance in the otherwise feminine (and childish) cast was riveting. He appears almost out of nowhere at Lizzie's table while she scans the restaurant as she awaits an arranged meeting with him. Silent and attentive, he listens as she explains her dilemma displaying no emotion whatsoever except an awkward willingness to go along with her plan. His initial meeting with Frankie who is as trusting and open as his mother is wary and reserved is another moment of stunning contrast.
I'll not spoil the movie by continuing here but will say that Dear Frankie is worth the seeing (I watched it twice and I never, ever do that). Jimmy, my husband, liked it too. If you want a contrasting opinion see Neil Young's (not the singer, I hope) Film Lounge. I also think it would be suitable for children around Frankie's age (9 years) and older. All around the acting is great. Emily Mortimer is especially fine as Lizzie, Frankie's mom. She sketches an emotional landscape which women easily recognize. I also enjoyed seeing Sharon Small out of her familiar (to me) role as assistant cop to Inspector Lynley. The Film Lounge reviewer mentioned above described Mary Riggan's portrayal of Frankie's grandma as OTT which could mean a number of things including: Over The Top, Off The Truck, and Off The Trolley, none of which apply in my opinion. I found her grandma reserved but tenacious.
Dear Frankie's also a great introduction to the Scots actor, Butler, who at 39, and with five new movies in various stages of development, is destined for even greater celebrity in the near future. Did I mention that he's a hunk? He is. But I suggest you see the movie before you check him out on YouTube where he is featured in some 13,400 videos.