It’s a fair statement that Physics’ loss was the movie industry’s gain. After graduating with a first in Physics from Trinity College, Lenny Abrahamson also took a detour around Philosophy, after he studied for a short while as a PhD candidate at Stanford University. And I think Physics and Philosophy may well have contributed to make him the artist he is today.
Abrahamson has form in exploring characters on the brittle edge of society. In ‘Adam & Paul’ (2004) and ‘Garage’ (2007) he drills into the psyche’s of apparently nondescript, ordinary people through a comedic lens, usually sobering us up in sharp fashion as he reveals his characters Achilles heels, the often tragic tears of a clown. His latest offering ‘Frank’ has no intention of allowing us to laugh uninterrupted until the end either.
Jon Burroughs (Domhnall Gleeson) is a bored office worker who dreams of being a musician and songwriter. He has a dull daily routine, in a dull English seaside town, struggling for inspiration as he makes dull attempts at song writing. Jon desperately wishes there had been some childhood abuse, or current mental anguish, from which he could source creative genius. Wandering aimlessly along the seafront on what is just another grey day, he happens across police officers trying to save a man from drowning himself. Standing next to him on the beach, watching the scene, are an odd-looking rag bag of individuals that turn out to be a band of musicians with the unpronounceable name: The Soronprfbs. The man attempting suicide is their keyboard player, and Jon’s chance encounter with The Soronprfbs would lead him down a rabbit hole from which he will emerge a very different man.
Joining the band as their replacement keyboard player, it quickly becomes apparent the band members are all deeply flawed individuals, none more so than lead singer, Frank. Superbly played by Michael Fassbender, Frank is loosely based on the British musician and comedian Frank Sidebottom. He lives his entire life wearing a giant papier mâché head, with grossly exaggerated features painted on, never ever taking it off.
Ill-tempered band member, Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is the band’s number two, with an ability to control Frank’s darker idiosyncrasies to keep him moving forward in the search for his musical expression. As the band head off to Ireland to write and record, she is wary of Jon’s presence, seeing him as a threat to her position, and some of the funnier moments come from the exaggerated, sparky chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Gleeson.
Unbeknownst to the band, Jon is tracking their progress in music making, as well as their bizarre daily lives, on social media and in an unlikely turn of events, The Soronprfbs unwittingly go viral. Out of the blue the band is offered a coveted invitation to play at the South by Southwest festival in Texas. What happens in Texas becomes a calamity of near slapstick proportions, tinged with the ultimate revelation of the tragedy underpinning the movie’s plot.
The movie is not without some problems. There are elements that add little or nothing to the story. The unexpected arrival of a German family to the house they’re renting in the middle of Ireland and their bizarre interaction with Frank is unnecessary and has little to do with the underlying plot. Half way through the movie they run out of money and Jon has to use personal funds to support them. That element really adds nothing as we are never asked to question where they got money to survive in the first place. There are also a couple of character issues that bugged me a little. Domhnall Gleeson is a fine actor and delivers his role extremely well, however Abrahamson’s direction occasionally makes the character come across as overly childish, reminding me of Harry Potter’s sidekick Ron Granger.
But overall, ‘Frank’ is a wonderful film. It is extremely well acted and well written and on the whole Lenny Abrahamson’s direction is difficult to fault. Whereas in ‘What Richard Did’ (2012) he used light to wonderful effect, in Frank he uses music as well as ambient sound, and sometimes silence, to accentuate the storytelling. His signature use of shallow depth of field cinematography, delivers a very character-driven experience, as body language and facial expressions are examined in great detail. Moving along at just the right pace, Frank is hilariously funny in places, and quietly melancholic in others.
Lenny Abrahamson is clearly a very capable movie director, and there are similarities in style and communication in his films that hallmark the work as his. But he’s relatively young and I think his best work is yet to come. Maybe something about philosophy or physics.
An edited version of this review was first published on GCN / theoutmost.com May 2014
© David Wilkins – May 2014
Running time:95 minutes
Release Date:May 9th 2014