Franklyn review

Martin's search for an intelligent science-fiction film is satisfied for the time being...

Meanwhile City is a strange place, particularly if you’re an ‘unbeliever’ like the unfortunately-named Preest (Ryan Phillippe). In this city, you have to pick a religion – atheism is not an option.

On the plus side, it’s a multi-faith metropolis whose denizens worship everything from Buddha to nail-polish. Sects and cults abound, and the mask-clad Preest tasks himself with rescuing those kidnapped into their clutches.

But tonight, out on the Blade Runner-like streets, towered over by miles of skyscraping cathedrals and shrines, Preest is plotting revenge, not rescue. Someone is going to die for what they did to a ‘hostage’…

Meanwhile in present-day London…

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Goth artist-student Amelia (Eva Green) is lost in a period of rage and regret, and the psychiatrist her mother hires can’t heal the family wounds. Her repeated suicide attempts are part of an ‘art-project’ for her course, but they’re getting awful risky…

Elsewhere, Esser (Bernard Hill) is a decent dad who’s come down from Cambridge to London to seek his estranged and ill son, who’s always one step ahead of him…

Elsewhere again, jilted spouse Milo (Sam Riley) finds his own emotional turmoil leavened by the sudden re-appearance in his life of his childhood sweetheart. Who’s also played by Eva Green…

There’s very, very little I can say about the multi-threaded and multi-temporal plot of Franklyn without spoiling it for you; since it’s a thought-provoking and intelligent sci-fi film in the vein of Slaughterhouse 5 and Brazil, I don’t really want to do that.

In a climate clamouring for more superheroes, the sight of Ryan Phillippe in a Watchmen-style mask in the film’s publicity probably gives the wrong impression of exactly what type of movie Franklyn is. There is a great ‘cathedral city’, there are some fantastic effects shots by Double Negative and there is some extraordinary imagery and production design likely to appeal to fans of Ridley Scott and Terry Gilliam. And, while these are interspersed with the conventional modern London locations, they are not doled out in such small amounts as to make you feel that you’ve been had.

You may well have been had, but not for that reason; rather, these comic-strip environs are not really what Franklyn is about.

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Director Gerald McMorrow is taking a big risk crediting his audience with some intelligence when that’s so unfashionable; Franklyn doesn’t worry that you’ll begin to connect the various threads of the mystery before the narrative resolves them. The revelatory finale doesn’t try for a Fight Club-style coup of the viewer’s perceptions, but leaves enough questions unanswered to intrigue.

Those hoping for a committed anti-religious tract might be disappointed; despite its plot-description, Franklyn has very little to say about religion one way or another, and it’s used instead as a narrative device and aesthetic motif for the film. One late development suggests that the movie’s votive anti-religion sentiment is inspired by events in the middle-east, but that’s evidently too hot a topic to pursue, except as a cryptic sub-text.

The film owes more to Brazil than any other influence, particularly in one amusing scene where the masked Preest asks some information from a female clerk. Talking of her ‘current religion’, she points over to a group of well-coiffured women filing their nails in a gleeful circle: “I’m a Seventh-Day Manicurist,” she tells Preest, “but I’m thinking of changing. The chat’s not very good, and they’re running out of colours”.

The cast are excellent, but they’re not excellent in every scene; Franklyn‘s commendably high standard of writing, directing and acting seems to suddenly drop in certain scenes, with clunky dialogue and wooden performances that evinced the odd unintentional laugh at the screening I attended.

That said, Bernard Hill, Art Malik and Susannah York are prize-finds for secondary roles, whilst Eva Green continues to demonstrate the most potent combination of attitude, acting ability and attractiveness since Sophia Loren. I liked Sam Riley a lot in Control, much as I did in Franklyn, but he’s on very much the same territory here, and can’t do too many more ’emotionally vulnerable’ turns before the style sets hard on his career.

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Ryan Phillipe’s accent adds to the confusion in Franklyn: he’s American, and yet turns in an unconvincing American accent for the film-noir voice-over that accompanies the ‘Meanwhile City’ segments. It could be an intentional stylisation, but it is odd. ‘Menacing’ is a bit of a reach for this actor, but he acquits himself well enough, particularly at the finale.

This is, above all, a very British film both in tone and approach; the high-budget stylings of the religious metropolis are there to counterpoint that fact, not compensate for it. The lack of an American release date is no surprise once you’ve seen the film, for this is as local an effort in intent as The Full Monty, and it’s very hard to gauge how such projects will translate in the US market.

France virtually had the sci-fi movie market to itself last year, but the likes of Eden Log and Dante 01 channelled the SF classics without adding anything of their own; to its credit, Franklyn actually has something of its own to say, and has digested its influences enough to stand on its own merits.

There are too many rough edges to take Franklyn beyond three stars, but I’m so grateful to see a sci-fi film with a brain that I’m compelled to add another…

4 stars

Franklyn is released Friday 27th February in the UK

Rating:

4 out of 5