Sunday, 20 September 2015

Film Ramble: Franklyn

Here's the thing: Franklyn is a British movie that isn't a gangster film, a romcom or a low budget
horror.  And if there were no other reason to talk about it six years after its release than the sheer difficulty of placing it in the depressingly restrictive landscape of British cinema then I for one would still consider that sufficient excuse.  Because tell me, when was the last time you saw a British film that intertwined four disparate stories across two parallel realities, one of which was a deliriously Gothic fever-dream of a fantasy world?

Those four stories go something like this: A man named Esser (Bernard Hill) hunts for his vanished son; a jilted groom (Sam Riley) circumvents his grief by convincing himself that his childhood sweetheart has reentered his life; performance artist Amelia (Eva Green) attempts to deal with family traumas by filming herself committing a series of escalating suicide attempts; and in a steampunkish fantasy burg named Meanwhile City where faith is mandatory but denomination arbitrary, vigilant Preest (Ryan Phillippe) hunts for his child-murdering nemesis, the Individual.

One of those sure does stick out like a sore thumb, doesn't it?

Let's get this out of the way nice and early: Franklyn is by no definition a flawless movie.  It has, in fact, at least two failings that could easily have been crippling. One - and, astonishingly, this is the more minor - is that two of its four stories just aren't very compelling.  Up until about the two-thirds point, Hill's Esser simply wanders around having cryptic conversations about his son, and any interest in the mystery of just what and why he's doing so has evaporated long before that point.  And our time spent with Riley is, if anything, worse; we're given little reason to sympathize with Milo, a perfectly typical and typically obnoxious spoiled urbanite, and Riley's performance brings out everything that's worst about the character.  Then his twist, the entire reason we've put up with him all this time, comes along, and it does nothing to make Milo more bearable; quite the opposite, in fact.

Though the impression is that writer-director Gerald McMorrow is at least aware of these problems, he's not capable of resolving them in any satisfactory fashion.  It's a fact of these Magnolia-esque overlapping narrative thingamajigs that not every story can be interesting at every point and you inevitably have to squeeze character development and exposition into places where they won't comfortably fit, but McMorrow seems unreasonably determined to give each thread equal weight.  Or maybe he doesn't, and all of this is primarily the fault of that second major flaw, which is that the editing is plain abominable.  Editor Peter Christelis, who bafflingly has quite an impressive CV, barely manages to keep up a narrative flow within individual scenes and fails utterly to contrive the kind of whip-smart construction that an anthology film like this lives and dies by.

Now, I realise I'm not making Franklyn sound very good.  I may, in fact, be past the point where I can justifiably turn around and try and convince you it's worthy of your time, and that in fact if you have any interest in genre cinema then you should be going out of your way to hunt it down.  But you should, and there are precisely three good reasons for that fact.

One is Eva Green, an actress whose ability to turn underwritten parts into living and breathing characters should be legendary by now.  Emilia, so unbearable a collection of visualized neuroses in theory, becomes in her hands by far the most compelling of the four protagonists.  Like much of Green's work, it's a hypnotic enough performance that if it was the only thing of value in the entire film it would still be worth a watch.

But it isn't, and it doesn't even quite take pride of place.  For number two, and coincidentally the
entire reason I'm talking about Franklyn here when my rule is to only discuss genre cinema, is Meanwhile City.  Meanwhile City is one of the greatest fantasy locations ever put to film.  It's relatively easy to see how it was achieved - a combination of CG matte backgrounds, cleverly picked locations and some superb costumes and mise en scène - but for all that, the cumulative effect is damn near perfect.  Meanwhile City feels real and physical and at the same time resolutely impossible, and every moment spent within its confines is a unique experience.

Which brings us neatly round to number three - which is that Franklyn is just preposterously ambitious.  I mean, who even tries something like this for their first film?  McMorrow is clearly a lunatic, and it pains me to no end that he hasn't made a feature film since.  In a better world, this kind of brave, boundary-shredding insanity would be rewarded rather than punished.  Hell, in a world where British cinema stretched past those endless aforementioned romcoms, ganster flicks and crummy horror movies, it would be.

But that isn't the world we live in, and so all we get is Franklyn.  It's hopelessly flawed and wonderfully unique, it gives Eva Green a chance to be great in something that isn't dross like 300: Rise of an Empire and it offers a glimpse into one of the most compelling fantasy worlds ever put to film.  Not half bad for a debut feature, right?


  1. I seem to recall being disappointed with how all the stories tied up and together.

  2. Yeah, I don't really have an argument for you; I'd say that at least one of the stories has no damn reason to be there, and that alone is enough to damage the ending. I'd have thought that Meanwhile City was rather up your alley, though?