Emily MortimerGerard Butler
Dear Frankie
Medium: film
Year: 2004
Director: Shona Auerbach
Writer: Andrea Gibb
Actor: Emily Mortimer, Jack McElhone, Mary Riggans, Sharon Small, Sophie Main, Katy Murphy, Sean Brown, Jayd Johnson, Anna Hepburn, Rony Bridges, Douglas Stewart Wallace, Elaine M. Ellis, Carolyn Calder, John Kazek, Gerard Butler
Country: UK
Format: 105 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0377752/
Website category: British
Review date: 18 September 2008
For me, this film was a must-watch. It's one of my wife's favourite films and she said that if I saw it, I'd understand her tastes better. Furthermore scanning the imdb review pages suggested that its fans are passionate about it, so I picked up the DVD.
Firstly, don't be put off by the title. This isn't a love story and Frankie isn't a woman from Louisiana who sings in bars at 3am, trying to forget about the man who done her wrong. Fortunately instead he's a nine-year-old deaf boy from Glasgow with no dad. This is good. His mother's been telling him that his father is a merchant seaman on the HMS Accra and encouraging him to write letters to this mythical figure. She even writes his supposed replies to them. This is slightly creepy, but she means well. This film is one of those low-key Britflicks that's driven entirely by verisimilitude and low-key character work. It's not particularly dramatic, but it's honest and real. There's not a single Movie Moment in the whole thing. Its most distinctive features are:
1 - a female director, a female writer and a mostly female crew.
2 - it's proud to be a small film. It was probably made on tuppence ha'penny, although it's also extremely well shot. There's an entire demographic out there who'd sooner chew off their own feet than watch anything that even has a gun in it. This film is for them.
3 - the important bit: it works. To be more specific, it sustains a level of realism and performance where I was laughing at bits that weren't jokes, simply because the actors are doing their jobs well. I believed in them. Gerard Butler and Emily Mortimer are recognisable names, but they're carefully being made not to look like movie people. Butler actually reminded me here of the 9th Doctor... short hair, leather jacket and a similarly bristling attitude that conceals a surprising amount of heart.
Hell, I even believed in the child actor, although it helps that he can't talk and doesn't usually react to things. He's interesting. Being deaf, he's partly cut off from our usual emotional signals and responses. When someone else does something, he'll just go about his business without much reaction unless it's something he particularly cares about. I presume that's realistic, although I wouldn't know. Certainly Jack McElhone is good enough in the role that one of the first things I did afterwards was to go online to see if he's deaf in real life. Apparently not. His one and only spoken line was delivered after working with a speech coach to make it sound right.
Me, I'm both impressed and disappointed. There's something special about deaf actors. I have a feeling for instance that McElhone doesn't quite have the hands right. He speaks sign language like a second language. Nevertheless these are nitpicks and I wouldn't want to detract from a strong, convincing performance from a child actor in a major role. Respect is due.
More distracting is hearing his letters as voice-overs, read by a boy of the right age and accent. I'd have to think for a while to decide how I feel about that. Probably unavoidable if you want to know what he's writing and it's better than having text on the screen. Isn't it? We're not just talking about an act transition as in Lean's Oliver Twist. Hmmm. Okay, I've thought it over and I... no, I still haven't decided yet.
There's one moment which will strike anyone with a professional interest in film and storytelling. There's a kiss. Not a big or even a passionate one, but definitely a kiss. However it's the pause preceding it which makes the shot so brave.
To be honest, there's not much to talk about here. Even the lazy reviewers' standby of summarising the plot wouldn't hold us up for very long, since in this case plot development isn't something you even expect. There are lots of highly successful British films which needed another 20-30 minutes of story to feel complete, e.g. The Full Monty, but this makes no pretensions at being anything but a short story. The characters are the plot. They do what they do, then the film ends. There's some backstory to be followed up on, but it doesn't really make much difference to anything. The dialogue is honest. The accents are Scottish. There's one memorable line which changes your perceptions of the characters, but this isn't a script of one-liners.
This film makes absolutely no mistakes. It is what it is. It tells the story it wants to tell, the actors are all solid (including the children) and it's warm without being sentimental. I can see why it's being called a masterpiece by its fans, but I think it's too slight and insignificant for that. However if this review made it sound like your cup of tea, I'm sure you'll find it hits the spot.