Dear Frankie is a 2004 British drama film directed by Shona Auerbach and starring Emily Mortimer, Gerard Butler, and Jack McElhone. The screenplay by Andrea Gibb focuses on a young single mother whose love for her son prompts her to perpetuate a deception designed to protect him from the truth about his father.
Lizzie Morrison (Emily Mortimer) and nine-year-old deaf son Frankie (Jack McElhone) frequently relocate to keep one step ahead of her abusive ex-husband and his family. They are accompanied by her opinionated, chain-smoking mother Nell. Newly relocated in the Scottish town of Greenock, Lizzie accepts a job at the local fish and chips shop owned by a friendly woman named Marie, and enrolls Frankie in school.
Through a Glasgow post office box, Frankie maintains a regular correspondence with someone he believes to be his father, Davey, who allegedly is a merchant seaman working on the HMS Accra. In reality, the letters he receives are written by his mother, who prefers maintaining this charade to telling her son the reason she fled her marriage.
When the Accra docks at Greenock port, Lizzie in a panic concocts a scheme to hire a man to impersonate Davey, the abusive father. When her effort to find someone at the local pub fails, she enlists Marie's assistance. Marie arranges for her to meet an acquaintance who coincidentally is passing through town at the same time the Accra will be in port. When Lizzie and the stranger (Gerard Butler) meet, he doesn't tell her his name. He agrees to spend a day with Frankie in exchange for the meager payment Lizzie can offer him.
When the stranger arrives at their home to pick up the boy, he brings him a book about marine life, one of Frankie's passions, and a bond is forged immediately. The two spend a day collecting on Frankie's bet at a soccer match from a school mate, ordering chips, and later in the evening setting up another half day visit. The second day is magical, with a wonderful stay at a dance, a walk to get around the "no past" ground rules, and the truth about Frankie's deafness a "gift from his daddy." Lizzie relates that she left her husband and has been hiding and writing the letters to Frankie. The stranger says she is a great mom for protecting Frankie. They kiss goodbye. After the stranger leaves, she discovers he has returned her payments.
Lizzie reluctantly visits the hospital without Frankie and experiences her husband's violent fury. Later when she tells Frankie that his dad is really sick, he writes a letter and draws a picture for his father. On a second visit, Lizzie brings the picture and a snapshot of Frankie. The chaos of the death scene is beautifully transformed by the exchange of gifts with a compassionate nurse as messenger. His death brings peace for them all.
Later, when Lizzie asks Marie about the stranger, she learns that he is in fact Marie's brother. Frankie's last letter shows that he realizes the truth that the stranger was not his real dad. Frankie carries on with his life, telling about his real dad passing, his friends and their gold stars in school, and football. Frankie hopes to see the stranger again. Frankie and his two friends toss the special skipping stone into the bay.
Frankie and Lizzie sit in silence on a dock looking out to sea.
- Emily Mortimer as Lizzie
- Gerard Butler as The Stranger
- Jack McElhone as Frankie
- Sean Brown as Ricky
- Mary Riggans as Nell
- Sharon Small as Marie
- Cal Macaninch as Davey
- Sophie Main as Serious Girl
- Katy Murphy as Miss MacKenzie
- Jayd Johnson as Catriona
- Anna Hepburn as Headmistress
- Rony Bridges as Post Office Clerk
- Douglas Stewart Wallace as Stamp Shop Keeper
- Elaine M. Ellis as Librarian
- Carolyn Calder as Barmaid
- John Kazek as Ally
- Garry Collins as Waiter
- Anne Marie Timoney as Janet
- Maureen Johnson as Singer
- Andrea Gibb as Waitress
- Sharon MacKenzie as Staff Nurse
- Jonathan Pender as Frankie (voice)
In The Story, a bonus feature on the DVD release of the film, director Shona Auerbach and some of her cast discuss the project. The screenplay originated as a script for a 15-minute short submitted to producer Caroline Wood, who had requested writing samples from potential screenwriters for what would be Auerbach's film debut after several years of directing commercials. Auerbach was so enamored with Andrea Gibb's work she convinced her to expand it to feature length.
The production design by Jennifer Kernke and palette of colors used throughout the film were inspired by paintings created by the Glasgow Boys and Glasgow Girls, Glasgow School collectives whose artwork featured prosaic scenes of the Scottish countryside.
Jack McElhone was among the first group of boys Auerbach auditioned for the role of Frankie. She continued to see about one hundred more but was unable to find any who captured the essence of the character, as she perceived it, more impressively than he did. The role of the character listed as The Stranger in the credits, although he is addressed as Louis in one scene, still had not been cast just prior to the scheduled start of filming. When Auerbach met Gerard Butler, she instinctively knew he was perfect for the role and immediately offered it to him without having him read for her.
- Filming locations
Dear Frankie was filmed on location in Scotland.
- Buchanan Street Stamps, Glasgow, Strathclyde, Scotland, UK
- Film City Glasgow, Govan, Glasgow, Strathclyde, Scotland, UK (studio)
- Glasgow, Strathclyde, Scotland, UK
- Greenock, Inverclyde, Scotland, UK
The film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in May 2004. It was screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival, where it received a fifteen-minute standing ovation. It was also shown at the Copenhagen International Film Festival, the Edinburgh Film Festival, the Toronto Film Festival, the Bordeaux International Festival of Women in Cinema, the Aubagne Film Festival, the Dinard Festival of British Cinema, the Austin Film Festival, the Chicago International Film Festival, the Heartland Film Festival, the Milwaukee International Film Festival, and the Scottsdale Film Festival before going into limited release in the UK and US.
The film grossed $1,341,332 in the US and $1,638,804 in foreign markets for a total worldwide box office of $2,980,136.
In his review in the New York Times, Stephen Holden called the film "a heaping bowl of Scottish blarney," a "manipulative tearjerker," and "a fraudulent yarn riddled with plot holes and improbabilities and topped by a cynical final twist that pulls the rug out from under the story."
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times said, "The filmmakers work close to the bone, finding emotional truth in hard, lonely lives ... What eventually happens, while not entirely unpredictable, benefits from close observation, understated emotions, unspoken feelings, and the movie's tact ... The bold long shot near the end of Dear Frankie allows the film to move straight as an arrow toward its emotional truth, without a single word or plot manipulation to distract us."
In the San Francisco Chronicle, Ruthe Stein called the film "deeply moving" and added, "Dear Frankie takes time weaving its magic ... Director Shona Auerbach doesn't rush anything in her remarkably accomplished first feature film. [She] has resurrected Butler's career ... and gotten an unforgettable performance from Mortimer ... Jack McElhone seems to be a natural, the kind of child actor you can't wait to have grow up to see what he'll be able to do then."
Peter Travers of Rolling Stone rated the film three out of a possible four stars and commented, "What could have been a sentimental train wreck emerges as a funny and touching portrait of three bruised people ... The film is unhurried, unslick and easy to hold dear."
In Variety, David Rooney observed, "Material that might have turned to standard dysfunctional family treacle in other hands is given stirring poignancy, warmth and emotional insight in Shona Auerbach's assured first feature ... [She has] a firm command of the visual medium and an equally strong rapport with actors ... Auerbach and screenwriter Andrea Gibb spin a touching story that never descends into schmaltz despite ample potential. The film is anchored in part by its setting in the kind of milieu more common to classic British kitchen-sink dramas or the films of Ken Loach than to anything this emotionally tender. Enriched by subtle notes of humor, the intimate story is powered by well-drawn relationships and finely shaded characters. Not only the family bonds but also those of friendship and tentative romance are traced with delicate economy and nuance."
Carina Chocano of the Los Angeles Times stated the film "nestles comfortably in that Scottish-Celtic niche of cozy, overcast, working-class fairy tales that seem to smell faintly of fried fish and beer ... Not that Dear Frankie aspires to any kind of hardened realism. On the contrary, it caters to a particular type of Anglophile fantasy, the kind where the china doesn't match and the chintz is dingy, but people look out for one another and love sprouts easily in the humidity ... [Its] surprises are few and low-key, but the story wraps up nicely. In that way, the movie is not unlike the fish dinners Frankie ... procures from Marie - slightly soggy and bland, but as warm, starchy and satisfying as a box of fries."
In the Tampa Bay Times, Steve Persall graded the film B and added, "Auerbach and screenwriter Andrea Gibb handle these circumstances with such understated grace that sap becomes special. Not perfect, but deeper, more affecting than U.S. moviegoers are accustomed to seeing. It's easy to guess what happens, but we're hooked anyway. A last-reel twist almost spoils the effect; we're waiting for something to go wrong with such a delicate story. Then, almost magically, the performances pull us through the cumbersome moments, resulting in a pat finale that honestly feels good."
In the UK, Radio Times awarded the film four out of a possible five stars and commented, "This simple story is rich with precise observation and it tugs at the heartstrings without being maudlin or manipulative ... With its sincere and perceptive script, the beautifully shot film vividly captures the raw emotions of its complex characters ... Despite occasional flickers of a fairy-tale ending, Auerbach ultimately resists the temptation, maintaining the realism and integrity that give this thoughtful feature its bittersweet charm." Philip French of The Observer described it as "a well-meaning but almost totally unconvincing tale ... [that's] a sentimental mess," while Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian stated, "This film struck me as sucrose and false when it premiered at last year's Cannes film festival. A second viewing certainly points up the presence of good actors doing an honest job, but they cannot do anything about something so mawkish and fundamentally unconvincing."
The film holds an 81% "certified fresh" rating by top film critics on Rotten Tomatoes based on 109 reviews, and an 89% positive rating based on 29,589 user reviews.
Awards and nominations
- 2005 BAFTA Award for Best Newcomer (Shona Auerbach, nominee)
- 2004 BAFTA Scotland Award for Best Director (Auerbach, nominee)
- 2004 BAFTA Scotland Award for Best First Time Performance (Jack McElhone, nominee)
- 2005 European Film Awards Jameson People's Choice Award for Best European Actress (Emily Mortimer, nominee)
- 2004 London Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress (Mortimer, nominee)
- 2004 Heartland Film Festival Crystal Heart Award (Auerbach, winner)
- 2004 High Falls Film Festival Audience Award for Best Feature Film (winner)
- 2004 Jackson Hole Film Festival Cowboy Award for Best Feature Film (winner)
- 2004 Los Angeles IFP/West Film Festival Audience Award for Best International Feature Film (winner)
- 2004 Montreal World Film Festival Golden Zenith Award (winner)
- 2004 Seattle International Film Festival Women in Cinema Lena Sharpe Award (Auerbach, winner)
- 2004 WinFemme Film Festival Award for Best Film or TV Show Directed by a Woman (winner)
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