As one whom his mother comforts,
so I will comfort you;
you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.
Oftentimes silence can convey as much meaning as words. That director Shona Auerbach and screenwriter: Andrea Gibb understand this is evident in their touching film Dear Frankie. What could have turned into a maudelin, overly sentimental tale is instead a beautifully understated film of parental protectiveness, wistful longing—and possibly, of hope fulfilled.
Lizzie (Emily Mortimer) years before has left her husband but kept up a pretense that his absence is due to his being constantly away at sea from Scotland. Nine year-old Frankie (Jack McElhone), almost totally deaf, has no memory of his father. The boy writes letters to his dad every week. Lizzie intercepts them at the post office and writes her “Dear Frankie” replies, describing in colorful detail the sights in various foreign ports. Frankie’s letters have become as important to her as his fathers are to him because, as she tells her mother Nell (Mary Riggans), “it’s the only way I can hear his voice.”
Then comes the day when one of Frankie’s taunting classmates sees in the newspaper that the Accra, supposedly Frankie’s father’s ship, will be docking soon. The skeptical boy makes a bet that there will be no father coming ashore. Lizzie at first is dismayed at the news, but then through a friend whose brother serves on the ship, she is able to strike a deal with the man whom we know only as the Stranger (Gerard Butler). When he asks the name of Frankie’s father, he adopts it—Davey.
Davey sees this purely as a financial deal, demanding that he be paid up front. However, after meeting Frankie and spending a day with him, he takes a liking to the lad. Upon their return that night, “Davey” tells Lizzie that his ship does not sail on the morrow, that he could spend another day with the boy. She is not at all happy about this, but Frankie is so enthusiastic that she relents, this time accompanying them.
At a time when so many film parents are depicted as neglectful or even abusive, it is refreshing to come upon one that shows to what lengths a parent might go to protect her child. The film will remind some of the German film Good Bye Lenin (though this one seeks to make no political observations), in which a son tried to protect his mother, coming out of a long coma, from the shattering truth that the Marxist dream of a “worker’s paradise” had come crashing down with the Berlin Wall. Or those of you with a long memory might recall the delightful 1985 Marcello Mastroiani/Jack Lemmon comedy Macaron, in which the former concocted a series of letters for his sister, perportedly from Lemmon’s character, who had been her lover during WW 2.
As the three part at the end of an enjoyable day we wonder whether Frankie knows more than he is letting on. The last scene, mostly staged without words, shows what a good filmmaker can do with excellent actors. It is a scene, engendering hope, one that will stay with you for a long time.