Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Shona Auerbach
Stars: Emily Mortimer, Gerard Butler, Jack McElhone, Sharon Small, Mary Riggans.
For some strange reason, it has taken this absolutely charming film nearly two years to reach our screens.
Deaf nine-year-old Frankie (Jack McElhone, recently seen in Young Adam) has never really known his father, a drunken abusive man. Years earlier his mother Lizzie (Emily Mortimer) took Frankie and has constantly been on the move since, moving house to avoid any chance that her husband may be able to track them down. But Lizzie has developed a fantasy to protect Frankie from the harsh reality of his life, by pretending that his father is a merchant seaman on the freighter the Accra. Lizzie encourages Frankie to write letters to his father, and address them to a special post office box, which would deliver them to the ship. She then writes back, pretending to be his dad, and filling him in on his adventures on the seas. Frankie even plots the fictitious voyages of the ship on a map in his bedroom. Lizzie maintains this pretense because it is the only way she can really find out what Frankie is thinking and feeling.
But then one day the newspaper reports that the Accra is going to dock in the local port. With help from her friend Marie (Sharon Small), who runs the local fish and chip shop, Lizzie hires a stranger (“a man with no past or history”) to play Frankie’s dad for the brief visit. But the stranger and Frankie bond unexpectedly, and the handsome stranger also helps Lizzie shrug off her emotional cocoon and face up to the real world.
Dear Frankie is a sweet and moving tale without being overtly manipulative or excessively saccharine. First time director Shona Auerbach, who also doubles as cinematographer, handles the material in a deliberately unsentimental fashion. The film explores some serious themes, and doesn’t always follow the obvious route to its satisfying conclusion.
The performances from the cast are all solid, especially young McElhone, who is both effective and affecting as Frankie, who seems mature beyond his years. Gerard Butler (from the recent Phantom Of The Opera, etc) shows a sensitive side as the stranger who forms a connection with Frankie. Veteran Scottish actress Mary Riggans brings some no-nonsense attitude and a touch of humour to her role as Lizzie’s mother, who doesn’t agree with Lizzie’s innocent deception.
The film also makes good use of its Glasgow locations, but a gritty edge at least allows it to avoid becoming a postcard-perfect picture.