If a god is willing to prevent evil, but not able, then he is not omnipotent. If he is able, but not willing, then he must be malevolent. If he is neither able or willing then why call him a god? Why else do bad things happen to good people?
There lies an odd purgatory for films like Franklyn. Written and directed by Gerald McMorrow as his full-length feature debut, it accomplishes a great deal using very little, but it’s also something of a difficult chore to make it through the film. Filmed on a minimal budget of only $12 million, it’s an ambitious, bizarre, atmospheric film that, without ruining it, will sound like a cryptic mess. And it is, but it’s one that has a great deal of imagination and with the right dose of sheer curiosity, you’ll find yourself unable to turn away from it, for fear of missing out on something potentially brilliant. That brilliance is up for debate, as the emotional payoff at the end feels somehow both fulfilling yet also abrupt. What is less debatable is that Franklyn is the rare original film, and for all of its faults, it remains a worthy endeavor.
If you walk into Franklyn without many spoilers, it’s a singularly conflicted and confusing film. Lazily switching between four strands of storytelling, it feels as if someone cut up the reels of four completely unrelated pictures and hastily taped them together. This narrative disjointedness makes the film so captivating, but also so frustrating at times, for you know it’s all leading somewhere, but for the first 60 minutes of its brisk 104-minute runtime, you feel like you’re trying to follow shadows in a darkened room — you simply have no idea where the film is heading. The storylines, which take place in London, are each intriguing in their own right — Milo (Sam Riley), a young man whose fiancée abandons him, tries to find sense in his life, and as a result begins to fixate on a woman from his past that he believes he is seeing on the street. At the same time, Emilia (Eva Green) is a nearly-unhinged performance artist, using video and her own suicide attempts to create a masterwork that will both advance her art school thesis as well as fix her damaged psyche. Bernard Hill plays Peter, a man searching the streets for his missing son. And all the while, the strangest of the storylines concerns John Preest (Ryan Phillippe), a vigilante in an alternate universe, who lives in Meanwhile City, a strange, gothic metropolis that fluidly merges the modern with the medieval, as he seeks vengeance on The Individual, who he believes is responsible for the death of the young girl he was once charged with finding.
At no point in the first hour of the film to any of those stories intersect directly — instead the movie takes a slow, deliberate pace, setting up each character and their environment in great depth and detail. This creates an unsettling and at times off-putting atmosphere in Franklyn — the stories are interesting ones, to be sure, but it’s also somewhat distracting that there seem to be no common thread, and that occasionally plodding pace makes for an occasionally impatient viewer. The character arcs are well-executed, however, particularly that of Eva Green’s Emilia, a clearly damaged, dysfunctional woman who seeks to fulfill some sort of redemptive urge through her strange and dangerous art. Of course, the real mystery is that which takes place in Meanwhile City, and Phillippe brings a solid sense of both vengeance and madness to the role of Preest. The cinematography in Meanwhile City is impressive, a combination of CGI and extravagant set pieces, all the more remarkable given the limited budget. While it obviously borrows heavily from a number of sources — inevitable Dark City comparisons will be drawn (both with the dystopian set design as well as the costumes of the Ministry, Meanwhile City’s ruthless governing body), and Watchmen’s Rorschach clearly served as an inspiration for Preest’s costume and characterization — both the setting and the character are interesting and intriguing. The film is filled to overflowing with religious imagery and metaphor, well beyond the obvious shot at the death of individuality themes brought upon by religious tyranny. Iconography of all shapes and forms are scattered throughout the film, both in the recognizable London scenes and in Meanwhile City.
It’s fortunate that these stories are engaging ones, for without the strong efforts of the actors involved, the film would likely topple under the weight of its own conceits. The problems stemming from watching it (and reviewing it, for that matter) is that you want to know what’s going on, but you also want to have it unfold organically and unspoiled. Which is why it’s impossible to give a more thorough plot synopsis without ruining the ending that, though it will not necessarily satisfy all viewers, is worth waiting for. But the actors do indeed carry the film — Phillippe is an actor who I’ve always felt was rather one-note, with a range that spans from sullen to dour, and not much in between. He hasn’t evolved much since his role in Cruel Intentions — his monotone delivery seems to be his curse. However, in this particular role, it becomes his strength, as the character of Preest is one of those methodical, singular-purposed types whose mission is his motivation. This, of course, creates its own unique dichotomy — an irreligious man surrounded by belief systems of all kinds (there are even religions based on manicures), whose inner prime directive creates its own form of fanaticism. In the “real” world, Bernard Hill excels as the borderline-panicked man seeking his son out — he isn’t a frantic hand-wringer, but his tension and concern is palpable throughout, as is his clear sense of responsibility. Sam Riley’s is probably the weakest of the stories, but that’s more due to the writing of the other three than his performance. A jilted lover is tough to care about when you have suicidal art projects, gun-toting masked men, and questing fathers.
All of these threads do eventually come together into a resounding climax that is both riveting and head-scratching. The film is not without its share of violations of the Chekhov’s Gun rule, which are perhaps designed to be red herrings but instead come off as frustrating examples of celluloid waste. It’s a difficult movie to watch, and the conclusion is a messy affair that resolves a couple of arcs, but still leaves one feeling as if the puzzle pieces aren’t quite shaped right. Of course, that lack of perfection, the disjointed feeling you’re left with at the end, is perhaps intentional and if so, even admirable, because there are real lessons to be learned from the stories, and one of those most certainly is that life is not clean and simple, and real life rarely blesses us with clear-cut happy endings. That said, Franklyn’s ambition is impressive in and of itself — it will be interesting to see if it enables McMorrow to parlay his talents into more expansive projects (and more recognized — the film had a limited release in the UK, and went straight to DVD in the US). Either way, it’s a curious, fascinating process to watch, and while it requires some patience, I did get satisfaction from watching the stories unspool themselves, and then, however clumsily on occasion, tie themselves back together in the end.
TK writes about music and movies. He enjoys playing with dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.