Director Shona Auerbach and writer Andrea Gibbs are not exactly household names. Between them they have two or three screen credits, including this picture. But 2004's small British import "Dear Frankie" is good enough to ensure that both of them should get a lot of future work.
The movie is an affectionate drama about family. Not a Disneyeque idealized family nor a fifties' sanitized sitcom family, but a modern family with problems. Lizzie Morrison (Emily Mortimer), Lizzie's deaf, nine-year-old son Frankie (Jack McElhone), and Lizzie's mother Nell (Mary Riggans) have moved near Glasgow, Scotland, to get away from Lizzie's abusive husband. In fact, they've been moving from place to place trying to elude him for almost nine years. Why Lizzie had never sought a divorce is a question unanswered, but there you have it.
Anyway, the plot hinges on a single device: For most of these years, Lizzie has told Frankie that his father was away in the merchant marine, sailing around the world. To maintain the illusion, Lizzie has been encouraging Frankie to write to his father, and then she has been answering the letters herself, including postage stamps from all over the globe for Frankie to put in his collection. But the dream is about to come to an end when Lizzie discovers that the ship she never thought existed is soon to dock in the nearby harbor of fictional Port Howat. Whatever to do? Why, find a substitute father for a day, that's what.
How likely a situation is this? Not likely, to be sure. But it does set up a touching scenario. Lizzie must find somebody to fit the picture of the hardy yet sensitive seafaring man she has painted of the long-absent father. Enter a stranger in the person of actor Gerard Butler, a stranger recommended to Lizzie by her friend Marie (Sharon Small). The stranger agrees to impersonate the father for a price.
What makes "Dear Frankie" work is the acting, which is uniformly superb, every character a precise, living, breathing human being. As Frankie, it is good to find a child actor in Jack McElhone who is not overly precious, artificial, or mannered. The fact that he is deaf lends an added poignancy to his circumstances that may have been a tad too much, true, occasioning more melodrama that was probably required. But it does no harm, and in its way it makes the child all the more vulnerable to further hurt, which is the position the mother has put him in. Eventually, he will have to learn the truth, while in the meantime the mother hopes to make his life as enjoyable as possible. Is a little hurt later on worth the greater happiness of the present? It's a decision the mother has made in what she believes to be Frankie's best interests. Now she must pursue her choice to its obvious conclusion. Fortunately, as Lizzie we find Ms. Mortimer fully up the task of convincing us of the mother's total devotion to her son. The mother will do anything to ensure his joy.
Still and all, the surprise of the film is Gerard Butler. Up until this performance I had only seen the man as a rather good-looking stiff, starring in things like "Dracula 2000" and "The Phantom of the Opera." I could not for the life of me understand why so many folks, mainly women, kept telling me he was so appealing. In "Dear Frankie" I can understand. He is the most persuasive performer in the film, playing a tall, dark, handsome, rugged, sexy, mysterious stranger who is yet compassionate, responsive, and sympathetic. For a little more than a day, he is, indeed, the perfect dad, and the look on Frankie's face when he's with him is worth the whole show. In an added irony, the stranger is a merchant sailor himself, and he must return to the sea.
Although the stranger is going along with the impersonation presumably for the money, we can also see stronger relationships developing in the day or two he's there. The movie's charm is that it encompasses so short a time span, using so disparate characters, yet makes so much of them. And though the mother is presumably writing the phony letters for her son's sake, we must wonder just how much they are a therapy for herself, too.
The movie was filmed largely on location in and around Glasgow. The city, the water, the ships, and the distant hills help to create an appropriate melancholy mood for the story, as well as produce a kind of metaphor for the characters' longings, their comings and goings in the world. Unfortunately, for Americans the setting brings up one of the film's only difficulties. The actors are all from England and Scotland, and their various accents and dialects may be hard for some listeners to decipher. I admit that I had to resort to using the disc's English captions to understand everything as clearly as possible. On the other hand, using subtitles isn't a bad idea even when watching many Hollywood films, especially if the musical soundtrack and/or audio effects are drowning out the dialogue.
"Dear Frankie" is perhaps a bit too sappy and gushy at times to be entirely effective, and there are elements of pathos that can be something of a downer as well. But the movie never cops out; it never takes the easy route, and it finishes up with a resolution you might not expect yet seems perfectly comfortable. "Dear Frankie" is a rare and endearing portrait of a mother's unconditional if not always judicious love for her only child. It's engrossing from beginning to end.
A quick check of the bit-rate counter tells us that Buena Vista did their best to transfer the picture to disc as well as possible, but the results are still mixed. The screen dimensions stretch to about a 1.78:1 anamorphic ratio, nicely filling out a widescreen TV, but the picture itself is slightly blurred, noticeably grainy, and often soft. The color is deep and rich, but it's a touch too dark for absolute realism. This is especially odd since the color pallette is quite subdued, like the story, and probably didn't need any further shading.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound reproduction might just as well be good monaural for all the use the speakers are put to. The midrange is exemplary, with clear, clean, quiet, well-balanced sound for dialogue. But not even the music gets much ambient, rear-channel reinforcement from the surrounds, and the front-channel stereo spread is modest. I doubt that anyone will notice since it's a quiet, dialogue-driven film, anyhow.
The extras include the usual elements, some of them a tad redundant. The audio commentary with director Shona Auerbach presents good, cogent explanations of what the filmmaker was trying to accomplish in each scene. Although some of her observations are self-evident, others are more revealing. The nine-minute featurette, "The Story of Dear Frankie," includes the actors, producer, and director discussing the origins of the film and their roles in its production. This is probably the best item among the extras because it gets to the heart of the movie most quickly. The other things, like the twelve-minute interview with the director, tend to repeat much of what was already said. Then there are eight deleted scenes, with optional director commentary, about eight minutes' worth, in widescreen; fifteen scene selections, with a chapter insert; English and French spoken languages; and
Spanish subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired
The two knocks I can see some people bringing against "Dear Frankie" are that it's awfully simple and it's awfully sentimental. Despite the comments of the director, the producer, and the actors in the various extra features, who would have you believe that every glance and gesture in the film signifies something deep and profound, the story and its themes are really quite straightforward and the characters fairly obvious. But simplicity is here a virtue, not a vice, and the film is all the more moving for its lack of pretentiousness. As far as sentiment goes, what would life be but a pretty shallow existence without it? So I appreciated the film for what it was: a sweet, affecting slice of life that leaves one feeling just a little bit better about the innate goodness of mankind. It may not be the most satisfying feel-good movie ever made, but it is uplifting, nevertheless.