Have you ever wanted to like a movie because hating it makes you seem like a big jerk? Have you ever railed against your country's film industry for not trying hard enough, and then, when you get your way, you can't stand what you end up with? Seeing Gerald McMorrow's Franklyn was pretty much the ultimate downer, as I finally got to see what I thought was going to be an ambitious sci fi thriller, but ended up being an empty exercise in puzzle-movie mechanics with some extraneous fantasy trappings from a first-time director who should surely earn praise for getting such an anti-audience project off the ground. Disliking it makes me feel like I'm dropping a rock on a tiny bird moments after it has learned how to fly.
Franklyn concerns four lonely people, played by Sam Riley as a hopeless romantic trying to connect with his childhood sweetheart between moping sessions, Eva Green as the world's most pretentious art student, Bernard Hill as a delusional man looking for his mentally unstable son, and, in the movie's most striking scenes, Ryan Phillippe, as a vigilante-cum-militant-atheist roaming a gothic land called Meanwhile City in search of an evil prophet called The Individual.
(Warning! Franklyn spoilers from here onwards!!!)
So far so perplexing. Sadly, the links between these characters are nowhere near as interesting as you would hope. As soon as it is revealed that Bernard Hill's son is mentally ill, all the efforts to hide photos of him from the audience come to naught. The fantasy land exists in Philippe's head, and the reveals of how all of the peculiar details from his plot-thread match up to the real world unfurl much as you would expect. It's rather disappointing.
For the most part the visually impressive Meanwhile City sequences could have been dropped from the film, as they add little but a bit of variety to the drawn-out scenes of Riley, Green, and Hill wandering around various unpleasant backstreets of Grey London. Riley seems almost totally fixated on Tottenham Court Road, and even passes within projectile vomiting distance of my old haunt Bradley's Spanish Bar. The meat of the film seems to be pushing the characters together through "cosmic intervention", with the only true fantasy element of the film being the two mysterious beings who intervene throughout. One is an Eastern European hospital janitor who is probably God. That detail, sure to infuriate xenophobic Mail readers throughout our dyspeptic and crotchety land, was delightful, though sadly reminiscent of the Godly janitor from The Hudsucker Proxy. The other Godly presence is a doubly-employed Eva Green, this time wearing a mad red wig. This also delights, in a different way.
That's one of the fatal flaws of Franklyn. Working like a cross between Dark City, It's A Wonderful Life, and Lost (with regards to its interconnected plots), Franklyn's ambition is hobbled by echoes of other stories. The moments where McMorrow allows his film to become a torrent of ideas, especially the religious mania of Meanwhile City, are the most interesting, but perhaps there's a movie to be made about that, instead of stapling it to this other story. To be honest, I doubt even that would work. As enjoyable as the detailed matte paintings are, Meanwhile City's conceit - that living there is only allowed if you adhere to a faith - is at worst an ill-thought out satire on New Age thinking, at best part of a greater theme throughout the movie about belief and self-deception.
Perhaps I'm being generous. Sam Riley's plot-thread revolves around his unrequited love, caused by a fixation on a childhood sweetheart who turns out to have been an imaginary friend-cum-guardian angel. He has created a fantasy world of his own, a lot less elaborate than Phillippe's, but containing more mad wigs. He also refers to a tale about a Storyteller who spins yarns that can then come true (Riley's onscreen BFF, played by Richard Coyne, makes a wet comment about that being a great superpower, which is kinda unfortunate, as this means McMorrow has never heard of this recently introduced Marvel character). That theme, of the delusion made real, pops up at the end as Phillippe's fantasy bleeds out into the world, to be seen by Eva Green. So what's the point McMorrow is making? That we make the world in our own image? That perception is all? That faith is the same thing as that, or perhaps a lesser form of self-delusion than daydreaming? It's a thread that could have been followed with more vigour, but instead falls short.
To make matters worse, it seems like all of the cosmic interventions are all in the service of so little. Green, who appears to be on the way to killing herself (her attempts disguised as a boring art project), is redeemed at the end by meeting Riley, who seems thrilled to have found a non-bewigged version of his guardian angel. Of course, he meets her in the final moments of the film, so a couple of weeks listening to her wittering on about her shitty art will probably put him off, but I think we're meant to find her solipsism and brattiness charming. As for Phillippe, he dies, and his dad sees it happen. I think he's meant to be given the opportunity to move on, but it seems like a pretty crappy way to do it. Your crazy son is dead, dude. Time to get a hobby. Thanks, Janitor God!
Maybe if there was a sense that more was at stake this would have worked better, but even with the threat of Bernard Hill dying at his son's hands, the loudly-whirring machinations of the plot signal that any attempt on his life is merely going to trigger something else. In that sense, Riley's flesh-wound seems to be important, but it really isn't. He doesn't have to be hurt for him to meet Eva Green. It's all meant to seem like something has happened, but nothing really has. The film runs on the spot for an hour and a half just so we can see a couple meet-cute. Or, considering the bloodshed, pyrotechnics, matte paintings, Godly interventions, and contrivance, perhaps I should say meet-complicated.
It's not all bad. Green is, as ever, a compelling screen presence even while playing an obnoxious art-school YBA parody, and effortlessly rises above the material. Phillippe is obscured by a mask that screams Desperately Seeking Iconic Status, and it's tempting to think he's been replaced by a body double for the majority of the film. When he's not in the mask, he speaks his dialogue through his traditional mouth-full-of-intensity, though his diction clears up when adopting a British accent for the final act. Bernard Hill is typically brilliant, though playing an infuriating loser strips him of all of his King Theoden charisma, which is a shame. Art Malik crops up in a dual role, and is almost unrecognisable while wearing his Meanwhile City White Contact Lenses Of Otherworldly Freakiness. It's good to see him around, even though he's not given much to do.
Sam Riley, sadly, is pretty bloody awful. I've been hearing a lot about him since he played Ian Curtis in Control, but this introduction to his work has soured me, hopefully temporarily. It doesn't help that his character is utterly wet and silly, whining repeatedly about how sad he is about not finding the right girl. Jilted by his fiancee in his first scene, he never recovers, so much so that after an hour and a half watching him mope and then stalk his guardian angel (yes, you can actually stalk imaginary people, apparently), you wonder how someone as feeble as him could ever appeal to someone as intense as Green's pretentious artist.
Perhaps that's why I felt so robbed at the end. All of this because two self-absorbed twits are meant to hook up in the final scene? And there's no way on earth they could ever make each other happy? It all felt like a lot of effort in service of nothing. The Meanwhile City ideas are left to dissipate in the air, unloved and undeveloped, with some gratuitous fight scenes added just to make you feel like something is happening. Bernard Hill is only there to look sad, for all the effect he has on the plot. Riley does literally nothing for the first hour of the film. Only Green gets anything meaty to do, and even then it's just giving up, though giving up in suicidal style.
Anyone who knows me knows I get very upset at the British film industry for not trying hard enough to tackle ambitious projects, and am rarely happy with the films that do get a wide release (this was one of the few times I ever sounded optimistic about it). Film4 and the UK Film Council funded McMorrow's project, and with the small budget (approximately $6m), he has done wonders. Ben Davis' photography is impressive, capturing the greyness of modern London depressingly well. Joby Talbot's soundtrack is also worthy of praise. However, McMorrow - who is originally a video and ad director - has fallen into the same trap as the mighty TARSEM! by letting his visual imagination run riot to the extent that any old narrative bolted on will serve to deliver those eye-bending images (if you think I'm being harsh about Tarsem's likeable and beautiful The Fall, bear in mind even that very slight film was based on Valeri Petrov's Yo Ho Ho, a fact that struggled to be discovered in the press coverage upon the film's theatrical release. That's how little attention people were paying to the plot).
Of course, McMorrow doesn't have the resources Tarsem had on hand, so his film is bound to be a lot less interesting visually. That's not his fault. However, while The Fall felt unsatisfying on a narrative level but still delivered a generally satisfying experience, Franklyn is a major disappointment. Though I commend McMorrow for getting this project onto the screen (no mean feat these days), he would do well to consider directing screenplays by stronger writers before he does so again. One day, with the inevitable support he will get from the fans that will champion this film as a visionary success (inevitable, if misguided, IMO), he could make something really worthy of attention. I look forward to joining that band of fans.
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