Though the end product often tries very hard to convince you otherwise, there is a great deal of mathematics involved in the creation of the popular movie today. There are three acts, always, and by the fifteen minute mark at the latest, the initial cards of the story must be dealt and laid out in an orderly fashion. Depending on the type of movie, these numbers can be fudged with here and there; award-bait dramas can take their time in an attempt to convey profundity and seriousness, and frenetic actioners may speed things up.
By and large, however, the average 90 minute movie is something you can set your watch by, if you learn to read the signs. So imagine my surprise — and delight — that twenty, and even forty minutes into Franklyn, I had barely a clue as to which act I was in, what was going on, and how things fit together.
Constructing something approaching a synopsis of writer & director Gerald McMorrow‘s movie proves to be tougher than expected. I know, having seen it, what it’s about, but even slotting it into a specific genre is neither easy, nor warranted. So let’s get down to the basics: Franklyn presents us with four separate strands of story, four individuals seemingly unconnected to each other. There’s Milo (Sam Riley), dumped before his impending wedding; Peter (Bernard Hill), a father seeking out his missing son; Emilia (Eva Green), a disturbed art student who’s working on a series of odd and macabre video projects; and of course, Jonathan Priest (Ryan Phillippe), the masked vigilante who stalks the streets of Meanwhile city on a deadly mission.
One of these strands, you might have guessed, is not like the others. Milo, Peter & Emilia’s stories take place in modern day London, while Priest’s tale is set in the nightmarish steampunk fantasy world of Meanwhile city.
Looking like something straight out of a China Mieville book (with enough Terry Gilliam quirk thrown in for good measure), Meanwhile city is a beautifully terrifying landscape of spires and mammoth buildings, all pressed up against each other like the throngs of the faithful that choke its streets. You have to have a religion in Meanwhile, so Priest informs us, and there are thousands to choose from, from the dapper Seventh Day Manicurists to evangelical washing machine cults.
It’s an wry, surreal, and quite enticing fantasy world, and I’d gladly have watched an entire movie set only in Meanwhile. That the rest of the film does not suffer from sharing space with it is a credit to its writing and pace. Before long you’re quite comfortable with the back and forth between characters and worlds, even if you aren’t quite sure what’s going on.
This is helped by the performances, of course. Each of the four main characters have fairly conventional roles (in such an unconventional script, this helps to bring order), but the actors are talented enough to make you care. Of the four Sam Riley deserves extra praise for taking what starts out as the most bland of the lot, and infusing him with depth and a quiet confusion, without ever sacrificing his intelligence. Eva Green is, as ever, solid, letting the minutest movements of her face do the majority of her character’s expression.
The ‘real world’ setting of Franklyn is not without its surreal touches, and how these help to interweave the stories is elegant and never feels like a cop-out. It’s hard to get into this without spoilers, but as a piece of surreal art cinema it works quite well.
Franklyn is a movie of many quiet technical feats that never tries to dazzle through sheer exuberance, and is better for it. It’s a slow burn. The dark fantasy of Meanwhile city is breathtaking and cleverly constructed though the use of excellent matte paintings, and oddball production design. The strong cinematography (by Ben Davis) and background score (Joby Talbot) are not simply restricted to the fantasy, and there are many images and sounds of considerable beauty.
It’s quite likely that anyone going into Franklyn will either come out loving or hating it. Judging by the posters one would expect the fantasy to be the entirety of the film (a Dark City style adventure, perhaps), and this is not the case at all. It can be said that Franklyn‘s ambition overreaches sometimes, but those who show a little patience with its unusual structure (even though all the while it stays cheekily within the ninety-minute/three-act form), and its blurred lines between fantasy and reality, will come away rewarded with a good, solid piece of strange cinema.