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Originally published Friday, March 11, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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A love letter to a mother's devotion, a little boy's spirit

Emily Mortimer has a steely fragility in Shona Auerbach's drama "Dear Frankie"; as a young mother trying to shield her son from a hurtful...

Seattle Times movie critic

Emily Mortimer has a steely fragility in Shona Auerbach's drama "Dear Frankie"; as a young mother trying to shield her son from a hurtful secret, she's a mixture of determination and fear. Hair limp and sad eyes wide, she's a tiny tower of strength, and the performance draws you to her — long before we know the whole of Lizzie Morrison's story, we're on her side.

And we're on the side of "Dear Frankie," a wrenchingly sweet and beautifully acted film that keeps surprising us — it never takes us where we think it's going, but always where we want to go. Lizzie lives with her 9-year-old son, Frankie (Jack McElhone), who is deaf, and her mother (Mary Riggans) in a series of modest homes in their native Scotland; they're constantly on the move, for reasons that Lizzie has kept hidden from Frankie. As the film begins, they've just settled in a quiet seaside town.

Movie review 3 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"Dear Frankie," with Emily Mortimer, Gerard Butler, Sharon Small, Jack McElhone, Mary Riggans. Directed by Shona Auerbach, from a screenplay by Andrea Gibb. 102 minutes. Rated PG-13 for language. Uptown.

Frankie, a smart, funny kid who's clearly inherited his mother's toughness, spends much time writing to his father, who's away at sea. He doesn't know that it's Lizzie who answers the letters, which she picks up at a post-office box. It's an elaborate deception, spun so that Frankie won't know that his father was an abuser whom Lizzie fled years ago. But when the father's alleged ship arrives in port, Lizzie has to craft a plan: hiring a stranger (Gerard Butler) to pose as Frankie's father.

Some of Andrea Gibb's screenplay defies belief just a bit; Lizzie's machinations seem a bit extreme, as does Frankie's immediate connection with the stranger (whose name we are never told). And Auerbach's gentle direction occasionally tips ever-so-slightly toward the sentimental, as when Lizzie sings a love song about a knight on a white horse (and is magically accompanied by a wistful guitar).

But the actors turn "Dear Frankie" into a lovely character study, bonding quietly in the film's raw, cold light. And its details create a rich world: the warm, friendly owner of the neighborhood chip shop (Sharon Small) who knows everyone and everything; the little girl who matter-of-factly tells Frankie that she's seen a mermaid; the focused, determined way that Frankie sets out to learn to skip stones on the water, his jaw set just like his mother's.

Auerbach, who began her career as a photographer, acted as her own cinematographer here, with stark, elegant results. She knows how to light Mortimer's thin face so as to find its wistful beauty.

We finally learn why Lizzie has maintained the deception for all these years, in a scene by the water — and it has little to do with reason. As "Dear Frankie" so gently reminds us, we all do crazy things for love.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

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