Ignorance is bliss for `Frankie'


April 15, 2005|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Dear Frankie is about doing right by someone, even when you may not be sure what right is. Cynics may carp about the blatant sentimentality, but only if they can avoid being swept away by a trio of strong performances that turn the film into far more than just a sure-fire tearjerker.

Deaf and living in poverty in Glasgow, Scotland, 9-year-old Frankie (Jack McElhone, expressive without being cloying) could be awash in self-pity. He isn't, thanks to the lingering hope that his long-lost dad, a merchant seaman forever stuck in foreign ports-of-call, will come back some day. Frankie doesn't have many friends, but somewhere he has a dad, and it's the dream of seeing his dad again, bolstered by the letters they are constantly exchanging, that keeps him going.

That, and the love of a very good mother.

But love doesn't begin to describe how Lizzie (Emily Mortimer) relates to her son. For her husband, Frankie's dad, isn't away at work, he's just away - not far enough away, as far as Lizzie is concerned, since theirs was an abusive relationship that couldn't end fast enough. Still, Lizzie is determined that Frankie know none of that. So she keeps her son happy in his fantasy-land ignorance, writing the letters his father is allegedly sending to him and reading those he sends.

When her mother (Mary Riggins) complains that what she's doing is wrong, that she's perpetuating a myth that's only going to hurt Frankie in the end, a distraught Lizzie shoots back that the letters her son writes his dad constitute the only "voice" the young boy has.

Then fate, playing its usual cruel joke, sends a ship into the port of Glasgow that bears the same name as the ship Frankie's father is supposed to be on. A frantic Lizzie, determined to maintain the ruse, visits a local pub in search of someone willing, for pay, to play Frankie's dad for a day. She finds a stoic, dark-haired stranger (his name is never revealed), who agrees.

Will he really go through with it? Should he, or would it be better for Frankie if reality finally enters his life? Maybe the guy is just exploiting the situation to take advantage of Lizzie, who is clearly vulnerable.

The Stranger is played by Gerard Butler, far more compelling during any 10 seconds onscreen here than he was during the entire two hours-plus of Phantom of the Opera, where the half-mask he was forced to wear clearly got the better of him. Butler proves a magnetic screen presence with a danger-fraught sex appeal; by the end of the film, it's hard to figure who needs him more, Lizzie or Frankie, but it's easy to see why they both find in him what they need.

Mortimer, who made such a lasting impression as the aspiring actress with low self-esteem in Lovely & Amazing, proves a compelling mix of fear and determination as a fiercely protective mother sure of what needs to be done, but not sure at all how to do it. With her soft face and longing dark eyes, Mortimer makes Lizzie an object of affection and respect, a woman you desperately want to see succeed, perhaps even in spite of herself.

The film marks a promising start for first-time director Shona Auerbach, who sets a languid pace that allows the characters to develop and the story to unfold without any undue prodding. While events do, at times, seem overly calculated to tap into the audience's tear ducts, things are never reduced to simple melodrama. Similarly, there are no real heroes or villains here, just people trying to live up to their better instincts.

Dear Frankie perhaps strays too closely to pathos at times, and when the fate of Frankie's real dad is ultimately revealed, it doesn't quite ring true. But the film displays a welcome understanding of what it's like to be an imperfect person in a situation demanding perfection.

Poor Frankie simply needs to believe in something, while the well-meaning adults around him are desperate for something to explain to them what they can do to help (and muddle about as best they can until such an instruction manual shows up).

For anyone who has ever had to balance what the heart yearns for against what the head insists must be, this film should hit home.

Dear Frankie

Starring Emily Mortimer, Gerard Butler, Jack McElhone

Directed by Shona Auerbach

Rated PG-13 (Language)

Released by Miramax Films

Time 105 minutes

Sun Score ***

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