The search for meaning in random events is a common, but extremely rocky terrain for filmmakers to navigate. Most of the time, the ultimate message or thematic point a movie with this goal arrives at is either too esoteric to follow, or any value in the proceedings crumbles under the weight of the precise conditions the writers and directors have created. Still, it's easy for the right kind of impressionable 15-18 year olds to get sucked in. I remember when I was that age, and my friends and I would latch onto each word of the supposedly meaningful movies we'd just watched -- their no-BS "truths" generally concerning either women or the hypocrisy and dementia of "the real world"/"the way things are" -- boasting to others about the "smart" movies we'd seen to anyone who would listen and imagining how much better we'd become as people having seen such groundbreaking prose. These days, I can spot the manipulation from a mile away, and I'm usually perceptive enough to avoid movies like this, but Franklyn slipped under the radar, trying to trick me with some dazzling, gothic visuals but quickly revealing itself to be another hollow mind-bender.
Franklyn features four main characters. The first three live in modern-day England, but are unaware of the others' existence. In order of appeal, we have Peter Esser (Bernard Hill), a worried father searching for his missing son; Milo (Sam Riley), who is set adrift when his fiancée calls off their wedding; and Emilia (Eva Green), a tortured artist trying to untangle her relationship with her mother. The fourth character is a man called Jonathan Preest (Ryan Phillippe), a masked vigilante who lives in a sprawling metropolis called Meanwhile City. Preest's most recent odd job, involving a little girl and a mysterious villain called The Individual, is revealed to have ended with the little girl's death, and Preest is out for revenge. Before he can quench his thirst for blood, however, Preest is captured by the city's top-hatted police officer figures and locked away for four years before the government tries to offer him a deal to take out the Individual. Preest agrees, but escapes before they can implant him with a tracking device, and moves to finish the job for his own satisfaction.
Of these four characters, we spend the most time with Emilia, and I'm extremely grateful to say that I've never met anyone like her in real life. Every minute she's on screen, she serves as an all-encompassing reminder of everything I have ever hated about people labeled as "emo" and anyone who takes the concept of "art" to moronic extremes. One of Emilia's attention-grabbing hobbies is to call an ambulance, then slash her wrists as both an awful "art project", and as a desperate grab for her mother's attention (and even then, when her mother doesn't show, Emilia seems to take more pleasure in being cynical than feeling remorse or sadness at the insensitivity). If I had been watching Franklyn for my own benefit, I can say with certainty the film would have been out of the player and back to the video store before her first "suicide" was over. I understand that the character, as written, has been through years of fighting, and has trouble speaking directly to her mother about the issues between them, but there's no justification for the waste of time and effort people spend on her just because she thinks she's creating some stupid video installation with meaning. As far as the acting goes, Green herself doesn't do anything wrong, but she doesn't infuse the character with any surprising flashes of humanity, either, and I spent most of the character's screen time fighting back irritation.
On the other hand, one of the few pieces of Franklyn that remains consistent is Hill's performance. From the moment he hears that his son is missing, Peter looks lost and slightly unsteady, as if he's on the verge of crumpling like a piece of paper, conveying a powerful sense of urgency and worry without any actor-y grandstanding on Hill's part. Sadly, the film's few strengths really begin and end with Hill, because Riley is merely passable, and his character seems fairly useless. Clearly, writer/director Gerald McMorrow had a place for Peter during the ending, but during the rest of the movie he flaps around, tacked onto the side of the movie, interacting with characters that don't serve any purpose and treading through a story that isn't very interesting.
I vaguely remember seeing a trailer for Franklyn, which is what prompted me to watch the movie in the first place, and the visuals and the spooky skull-like mask that Preest wears to hide his face were the primary points of interest. The film feels low-budget, especially in comparison to the scope of the story, and much of Meanwhile City is created with computer graphics and it doesn't always look as elaborate as the script may have intended, but it's certainly one of the more engaging parts of the story, because it's the most unfamiliar. The resolutions to the other stories might not be obvious, but in general, they don't seem that interesting; at least in Meanwhile City there's the chance we might see some hand-to-hand combat or stunning visuals. Disappointingly, however, Preest turns out to be the movie's red herring, thrust aside for scenes of Emilia rudely snapping first at a hospital janitor and later at her art professor, both trying to offer her advice on how to act like a normal human being.
As the movie winds down, it becomes clear that McMorrow has a grand scheme to the movie, one of those webs where everything is connected, slowly building to a finish that will supposedly turn the audience's entire understanding of the world as we know it right on its head. Once the film is all said and done, though, the film just feels like a poor Donnie Darko rip-off. Admittedly, Darko has its own imperfect moments of faux-philosophy, but his film is bolstered by innovative ideas about time travel, excellent acting and characterization, and the pure confidence with which Kelly stages his vision. By comparison, the strongest praise I'm likely to heap on Franklyn is that it's perfectly competent during the other portions, lacking any directorial flair or skillful editing to spice things up. Not only will the audience will probably have dozed off long before the story gets where it's going, but the twist is predictable, and whatever truths McMorrow was trying to convey are muddled and vague. Ultimately, Phillippe does get a chance to shine; while he's sorta distant for the first chunk of the film, he's genuinely great in the final reel, but his effort isn't enough to bring everything together.
Franklyn comes in a standard Flexbox DVD case with cover art that's basically a bunch of elements arranged over a generic, "moody" background rather than something someone actually designed, with an overuse of different fonts for no apparent reason. The back cover is an improvement on the front, but there's just a little too much text in the available space (or the text is just a little too big) for the design to work perfectly. Once again, there are too many fonts, and the empty space in between the pictures still stands out as generic. Inside the case there is no insert, and the disc features a mostly-identical but somehow much better arrangement of a couple of the front-cover elements.
The Video and Audio
The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation on this DVD is hard to judge. It looks kind of soft, but I'm not sure how much of the softness is intentional. Colors are pretty good, but contrast is a little muddier than I'd like, and one particularly dark scene where Preest interrogates a former informant in a dark basement revealed a touch of posterization as the light sources changed. Overall, I'd place the look of the image somewhere between good and very good (if you are desperate to watch the movie and have access to Blu-Ray, it's probably worth the upgrade in this case).
Dolby Digital 5.1 English Surround is a more mediocre affair, without a whole lot going on in the surrounds. Ostensibly, some of the film is action-packed (although I certainly wouldn't label the film an action movie), but even the occasional bar fight or prison break doesn't cause the back channels to do a whole lot. Dialogue is perfectly audible though, and the score and a few ambient effects do poke through from time to time. English subtitles are also provided.
The bonus features kick off with a making-of featurette (4:01) that contains some surprisingly earnest interviews with the stars wedged in between far too much footage from the movie (especially given the length of the piece). Interestingly, the film clips from the featurette looks a little sharper than the actual film transfer. Next, a menu option called Interviews leads to nine clips, with writer/director Gerald Morrow (10:48); producer Jeremy Thomas (2:10); actors Ryan Phillippe (3:04), Eva Green (3:40), Sam Riley (2:12) and Bernard Hill (1:19); costume designer Léonie Hartard (3:20), production designer Laurence Dorman (3:26) and director of photography Ben Davis (2:21), with a Play All option (32:21). It's nice to see the full clips from the featurette included, but an editor still could have slimmed this collection down to about 20 or 25 minutes of the most interesting bits (just cutting out the multiple plot explanations would excise at least 4 or 5 minutes). Finally, 3 deleted scenes (3:54) wrap things up. The first one provides some personal relief in the form of an ambulance medic chewing Emilia out for her reckless antics, but the second is basically a joke and the third is inconsequential.
The movie's original theatrical trailer has also been provided. The bonus features are not subtitled, and there are no trailers before the menu.
It's a nice effort (especially the last-minute rallying by Phillippe, which is genuinely impressive), but Franklyn fails to lift off, mired in its own mythology and insistent drive towards a lame ending. The film will probably score a few fans here and there with the illusion of meaning, but the experience as a whole is as hollow as the black eyes in Jonathan Preest's eerie mask. The DVD features are nothing to write home about either, so I say even the intrigued can probably skip it.
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