Lizzie Morrison (Emily Mortimer) lives on the run. Accompanied by her mother, Nell (Mary Riggans), and her deaf son, Frankie (Jack McElhone), she flits from one small Scottish town to the next, barely keeping ahead of the abusive ex-husband determined to find her. Short on cash and stability, this unconventional family copes as they can. Nell daily scans the obituary columns just in case her former son-in-law has died, while Lizzie writes Frankie regular letters purporting to come from a globe-circling merchant seaman father.
Dear Frankie opens the year Frankie is nine, when the threesome has taken refuge in a declining dock town on the River Clyde. As they settle into their gloomy flat above the local chip shop, it seems as if life as usual is about to resume: the new school ritual for Frankie, a fearful isolation for Lizzie, and a despondent tolerance for Nell. Then Frankie hears from a schoolmate that his “father’s” ship, the Accra, is docking in town. Suddenly, Lizzie must either puncture Frankie’s fantasy of his loving, literate father, or find someone—anyone—willing to impersonate Dad for day.
While the solution to this conundrum drives the movie, BAFTA-nominated first-time feature director Shona Auerbach embraces far more complex themes, including the relationship between a parent and a child with a disability, and the near-impossibility of personal connection in a world where transience and serial reinvention are the norm. And her film is funny in the process, although on the evidence of the preview audience’s reactions, the deadpan humor may be too culturally specific for some viewers. She conjures a working-class world that soars past sentimentality and brutality and recalls instead the bracing delicacy of movies such as Isabel Coixet’s My Life Without Me (2003) and Bill Forsyth’s early films, That Sinking Feeling (1980) and Gregory’s Girl (1981).
Like these filmmakers, Auerbach and screenwriter Andrea Gibb craft a reflective, witty opening that allows a slow accumulation of everyday incidents that invites audiences to share the characters’ accidental discoveries about themselves. As the camera follows Lizzie through the ritualistic steps that sustain the fantasy of Frankie’s sailor father—the collection of Frankie’s letters from a P.O. box, the visit to a Glasgow philatelist for an exotic stamp, and finally, her own writing of the father’s letter back to Frankie—we realize, as Lizzie does, that she is even more addicted to the charade than Frankie. Her subsequent passionate insistence that any man who “plays” Frankie’s father must only be available for a day, and never be seen again, is thus both understandable and touching. This exchange of letters is the only time she will ever “hear” her son’s voice, and if she is forced to confess the truth, that vital lifeline will vanish.
When the selected “stranger” (Gerard Butler) arrives at Lizzie’s home in the guise of Frankie’s father, he sits, incommunicado at the kitchen table, resisting all Nell’s attempts, in the best tradition of Scots hospitality, to normalize the bizarre with a cup of tea. Nothing about his demeanor changes when Frankie appears. He simply draws from his bag a book on marine biology he’s brought for the boy. At the same time, everything about the gesture signals the man’s loneliness, from the crumpled brown paper bag with which the book is clumsily wrapped to the care he has evidenced in choosing its subject, displaying a knowledge of Frankie’s passion he could only have gained through reading every one of the letters Lizzie had given him.
Butler’s performance injects a necessary abrasiveness just when the film risks slipping into sappiness, in the encounter of stranger and child. He’s almost relentlessly impassive, the very opposite of easy prey to the charm of perky nine-year-olds, and his rigidity hints at the character’s terror of the consequences of showing any emotion whatsoever. The performance serves as a foil to Mortimer’s, whose constant, fleeting movements and sharp delivery create a Lizzie visibly on the verge of disintegration.
Though occasionally movie-child cute, Frankie is for the most part a complicated young person whose only instrument of communication is his body. Just as credible is the setting through which the boy moves. The film never confuses financial poverty with poverty of imagination or love, or lack of pride. Lizzie and Nell’s apartment may be dark and old-fashioned, but the ceilings are high, the walls covered with pictures, and the window glimpses the Clyde and the hills beyond. And when Lizzie meets the stranger for the first time in a Glasgow café-bar, she counters his order of “Americano, strong” with a sturdy “Water, tap.”
In an interview from the early ‘80s, Auerbach’s fellow Scot, Bill Forsyth, discussed his understanding of a national individuality. He observed that Scots humor:
is the humour of despair, the humour of the gallows. The humour of awful circumstances or predicaments. I think that is where humour comes from. From situations where the only way out is to laugh, for survival’s sake. At the bottom of every joke is a piece of despair, you can’t produce a laugh without it. If someone falls on a banana skin you get a laugh, but someone gets hurt.*
Dear Frankie uses such humor to acknowledge and, temporarily, transcend the fragility of human survival. Only the closing sequences, which rush into feel-good resolution, mar this movie. Their inclusion exemplifies the problems faced by filmmakers struggling to represent national cultures and philosophies, while also to sell their work in a global market dominated by Hollywood storytelling.
* Local Hero: The Making of the Film, Allan Hunter and Mark Astaire, Polygon: Edinburgh, 1983.