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Dear Frankie
Tchaikovsky Cultural Center 
Directed by Shona Auerbach. Written by Andrea Gibb. Starring: Gerard Butler, Jack McElhone, Emily Mortimer, Mary Riggans. 105 min. UK.

By Sam Gerrans

Review top sheet: a well-crafted and emotionally harrowing film with a great central idea, fine photography and the occasional curious blunder.

This is a full-on weepy. If anything you’ve seen in the last year has had you quietly dabbing the corners of your eyes, this film will leave you howling on the floor in a pool of your own tears.

Not first-date material if one of you is a single parent. Nor is it a boys’-night-out film if you have a tender underbelly and don’t want your mates laughing at you.

Will you like this film?

Yes, if: you’re into a good emotional battering and like to mainline large doses of pathos in your free time
No, if: you’re a systems analyst, a computer programmer, or enjoy doing anything connected with an Excel spreadsheet
Maybe, if: you’re spending lots of money on a therapist to help you get over your absent father and want to get off on someone else having a relatively much worse time than you did

Comments: I don’t mind low-budget. I mean, my top film for the year so far – “Sideways” – rang up for less than Spielberg’s personal allowance for Coke during the making of “War of the Worlds”. But “Sideways” looks like it was meant to begin its descent to cable from a cinema theatre. This film doesn’t. It looks Channel 4.

Is this because I'm from Britain, a place where the sun never shines for more than ten minutes and people's teeth are uneven and have a yellowish-brown tinge? Is it that only America's endless sun and perfect teeth can make a film look big-screen? I don't think so. "The Full Monty" and "Billy Elliot" both hail from dank, tea-stained Britain but still looked at home where the seats cost ten bucks a pop. "Dear Frankie" somehow does not.

Out-of-five star ratings:

• Story: ****
• Dialogue: ***
• Substance: ****
• Film craft: ***

Story comments: the story premise is great. I had one of those wish-I’d-thought-of-that-first moments. No complaints – it’s a really cool idea. And having started like that, the film twists and morphs into something even better. Yes, this is an original, telling idea pretty well developed.

But the film has problems. Its main one is it’s hard-up for antagonists. They are either hollow or absent (either dramatically, factually – or both).

The unpleasant little git Frankie – played by Jack McElhone – chooses to pal up with digs his poisoned daggers in at opportune moments for no apparent reason then goes away again. Something was missing here.

You could argue with the ending, too, though it worked for me.

Dialogue comments: if you couldn’t follow “Trainspotting” for linguistic reasons you are going to have problems here since the story takes place in Scotland with all the attendant complications for people attuned to international English.

This is a film without stars – which I personally often like. But, despite the competent – even good – delivery all round, I was troubled by the feeling that the whole thing looked just a tad out of its depth on the big screen.

Substance comments: this film has substance. A mother's love for her son. A boy's need for his father. This is all highly emotional stuff which is hardwired into our sympathies. And it's been effectively - if somewhat sneakily - utilised here.

The themes are treated emotionally rather than intellectually. This is not an erudite or clever film. It is a gush fest based on a strong idea which works pretty well but not brilliantly.

Film craft: well-shot, nicely edited and well cast, the film’s chief failing is that it has been wrongly marketed. It’s a TV drama, not a cinema experience.

A taste of the story: a deaf and mute boy writes to his absent father via a PO box. But the correspondence is not what it seems.


Sam Gerrans is a freelance writer and translator: http://samgerrans.com.

08.08.05
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