Dear Frankie (United Kingdom, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Dear Frankie, the feature debut of director Shona Auerbach, is a cinematic definition of mediocrity. Neither awful nor impressive, it features moments of genuine power and instances when it is cloying. The end result is an unremarkable, unmemorable movie that deserves neither praise nor approbation. Those who are willing to overlook its numerous shortcomings will no doubt be moved by this occasionally trite story of bonding; those who expect more from a film than a series of forced relationships will be irritated by its frequent manipulation.

The film transpires in Scotland, where Frankie Morrison (Jack McElhone) and his mother, Lizzie (Emily Mortimer), have set up residence in an out-of-the-way port town. For nearly nine years, most of Frankie's life, they have been fleeing from his abusive father, always trying to stay one step ahead of him. Frankie, who is deaf, doesn't know the truth about his dad. Instead, Lizzie has constructed a detailed fabrication of her husband's identity, making up a story about him being a sailor on the HMS Acra. However, when the Acra docks at the town's port, Lizzie must pay a total stranger (Gerard Butler, out of the mask he wore in The Phantom of the Opera) to pretend to be the boy's seafaring sire. The arrangement works out surprisingly well - almost too well - and Lizzie finds herself as attracted to the mysterious visitor as her son is.

On the plus side, the acting is strong. As the protective mother, Emily Mortimer is wonderful, conveying warmth and humanity. Jack McElhone is effective as Frankie, developing his character with a sense of irony and a pragmatic life-view. This is not one of those disabled individuals who suffers from a case of terminal cuteness. As the stranger (who is never named), Gerard Butler shows tenderness beneath a seemingly callous exterior. The fact that we believe in this trio (as well as Mary Riggans as Frankie's grandmother and Miranda Richardson-lookalike Sharon Small as Marie, a helpful neighbor) goes a long ways towards making the storyline seem less syrupy than it is.

Contrivances abound, and sometimes they are a little too obvious to pass the test of reasonable suspension of disbelief. The attachment between Frankie and the stranger develops too deeply to be credible. No matter how appealing the kid is and how lonely the mariner is, it's hard to accept that these two would become like father and son after spending only part of one day together. Likewise, the budding romance between Lizzie and the stranger feels forced. There's some chemistry between these two, but they spend so little time together that the kiss comes across as grossly out-of-place.

It's interesting to watch everything that Lizzie has to go through to make Frankie's fantasy-world exist. Not only does she write letters to her son signed by his "father," but she investigates interesting ports and comes up with convenient explanations for inconsistencies (such as why there's always a Scottish postmark on every letter, no matter where it is supposedly sent from). As in films like Good Bye Lenin!, there's a certain fascination inherent in seeing everything that goes into a well developed fabrication. But, like Santa Claus, this is the kind of myth that gains much of its credibility because the subject wants to believe it.

Arguably, the element of the film that works best involves Lizzie's interaction with Frankie's real father, who is ill and pleads with her for an opportunity to see his son before he dies. This presents Lizzie with a moral conundrum - shatter her son's illusions about his father or deny a terminal man his dying wish. The resolution is facile, but not a total cop-out. However, Frankie's eleventh-hour revelation seems more like a screenwriter's invention than the pronouncement of a genuine (even precocious) child. Like almost all of Dear Frankie, this is a mixed bag. There's enough potential in the premise to make the uneven execution a disappointment.

Dear Frankie (United Kingdom, 2004)

Director: Shona Auerbach
Cast: Emily Mortimer, Jack McElhone, Gerard Butler, Sharon Small, Mary Riggans
Screenplay: Andrea Gibb
Cinematography: Shona Auerbach
Music: Alex Heffes
U.S. Distributor: Miramax Films
Run Time: 1:42
U.S. Release Date: 2005-03-04
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1