Standout performances from Michael Fassbender and Domhnall Gleeson help make Lenny Abrahamson’s ‘Frank’ a hilarious film, but it’s got a heart of darkness says David Wilkins.
Lenny Abrahamson has risen through the echelons of the film industry with explorations of characters on the brittle edge of society. In Adam & Paul (2004) and Garage (2007), he drilled into the psyches of apparently non-descript, ordinary people through a comedic lens, sobering us up in sharp fashion as he revealed his characters’ Achille’s Heels. His latest offering, Frank has no intention of allowing us to laugh without sharp interruption 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.
Frank is not without its 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 Ireland and their bizarre interaction with Frank is pointless, and while Domhnall Gleeson is a fine actor, Abrahamson’s direction occasionally makes the character come across more like Harry Potter’s sidekick, Ron Granger, than a grown-up muso.
That little nitpick aside, 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 a hilariously funny film, that in true Abrahamson style, also dares to go to very dark places.
Frank hits cinemas on Friday, May 9.
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