Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Dear Frankie



UK 2004 : Shona AUERBACH : 104 mins

The only surprising thing about Dear Frankie – apart from how rubbish it is – is the absence of Shirley Henderson among the cast. Currently one of Britain’s most talented actresses, Henderson often finds herself in dire would-be comedies such as Once Upon a Time in the Midlands and Wilbur (Wants to Kill Himself), the film which Dear Frankie most closely resembles. Both films take place in a desperately bittersweet-quirky version of modern-day Scotland which exists only in screenwriters’ imaginations, their characters, dialogue and plot ringing tinnily false at almost every stage, unconvincing in both their overall conception and their specific details.

Stranger on the shore - Dear FrankieDear Frankie is a clunky variation on the idea handled with much more skill in Good Bye Lenin! and taken to another level in the French/Georgian variation Since Otar Left, whereby relatives end up going to implausibly elaborate lengths to withhold a painful truth from a vulnerable family-member. Here the ‘innocent’ character is Frankie (Jack McElhone), a deaf nine-year-old who lives with his mother Lizzie (Emily Mortimer) and Lizzie’s mother Nell (a gratingly OTT Mary Riggans). The family is constantly on the move as Lizzie still terrified of Frankie’s dad, a violent thug who caused his son’s deafness years before. Frankie has no memory of his father, and Lizzie wants to keep it that way – so she spins a yarn about him going off to sea on a particular ship. Frankie plots the vessel’s progress around the world’s oceans, and is delighted when he finds its next port of call is the city where he’s living. This isn’t such good news for Lizzie, who in desperation hires a man – unnamed, and billed only as ‘The Stranger’ (Gerard Butler) in the end credits – to impersonate Frankie’s dad. Complications ensue.

When Dear Frankie had its UK premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival, the official brochure noted that it had “met with [disfavour] from the critics” when featuring in Un Certain Regard at Cannes. “But then, at the end of the day, this is not a critic’s film” states the brochure – as if critics were incapable of appreciating anything other than challenging, arthouse fare. What they mean to say is that this isn’t a film for “critical” audiences – i.e. viewers who expect the films they see to hang together, to be convincing, to satisfy. Dear Frankie falls short on every count.

The basic problem isn’t the uninspiringly flat direction, nor is it the a predictable MOR soundtrack choices featuring the likes of Damien Rice and much tinkly piano. More troubling is the nagging artificiality that hangs over the whole enterprise – Auerbach (working from Andrea Gibb’s script) goes to such strenuous lengths to (pointlessly) hide her Greenock locations, inventing a very fake-looking local newspaper (‘The Tribune’) and even obscuring the destination displays on buses and the 0141 dialling-code on estate agents’ signs. Instead Lizzie and Frankie live in the fictional ‘Port Howat,’ complete with ‘PH’ postcode. The only flashes of real-world solidity come courtesy of Butler in the tricky role of the strong-and-silent Stranger. Spoken of as a potential James Bond, and The Phantom in Joel Schumacher’s upcoming Phantom of the Opera, he does his valiant best to inject a bit of grit and intrigue into what is otherwise a thoroughly phoney-baloney would-be-tearjerker.

14th September, 2004
(seen 26th August : UGC Edinburgh : press show – Edinburgh Film Festival)

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by Neil Young