Netflix Update No. 11: “Dear Frankie”
June 10, 2009
We watched “Dear Frankie,” a 2004 movie shot in Scotland, directed by Shona Auerbach. The story concerns Lizzie Morrison, played by Emily Mortimer, a single mother who has spent years avoiding her husband, Davy, who physically abused her and their son, Frankie (Jack McElhone). As the film opens, mother and son — accompanied by Lizzie’s mother, Nell (Mary Riggans), have moved again to a seaport town in Scotland.
To shield Frankie from the hard facts of his past, Lizzie has maintained the fiction that the boy’s father is a merchant seaman who travels the world aboard HMS Accra. She regularly writes letters to Frankie over his father’s name — often including exotic postage stamps — and Frankie writes back in letters that Lizzie retrieves when they are returned to the post office.
Frankie is deaf and rarely speaks — though he can — but he is exceptionally bright and excels at reading lips. One of his schoolmates discovers in a newspaper shipping news item that the Accra, which Frankie thinks is headed for the Cape of Good Hope, is actually to dock in that Scottish town in a few days. This information spurs Lizzie to search for a man who can pose as Davy for a few days. Through one of her few friends in town, she hires a man whom she requires to have “no past, no present, no future,” and he appears — with no name as well — in the form of Gerard Butler. He presents a grim figure, but it appears from the beginning of his relationship with the Morrison family that their bizarre situation piques first his curiosity and then his interest.
As Lizzie and the nameless imposter carry on the charade with Frankie, Nell discovers that Davy or someone on his behalf has been searching for Lizzie and is close at hand.
This story, which was written by Andrea Gibb, could easily have disintegrated into absurdity, but no such thing happens. Offbeat as they are, the issues in this film are family issues, and they are presented in terms of the private pain and fear and disappointment that are not strange to many people. These characters and their situation have about them the smell of reality, and Auerbach firmly grounds them with every aspect of her direction, but particularly with her use of real time — pauses, stillness, silence that some directors might be afraid to employ. There is, perhaps famously by now, a scene in which Lizzie and the imposter stare at each other for what seems like minutes, though it seems that long only because it is longer than many directors would dare to abandon motion and sound. In lesser movies, their mutual stare might have led to a cheap and easy consequence, but not here.
One caveat. As annoying as subtitles can be, we left them on, because some of the actors’ pronunciation makes the dialogue difficult to follow.