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Sundance London 2014
British Film Review: Frank
As it arrives at this weekend’s Sundance London, Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank has already gathered quite a head of steam. It’s nothing to do with the cast – even though that’s impressive enough – or the story. No, it’s because the central character’s face is disguised by a massive papier mache head with a cartoon face painted on it. And the actor underneath that head is no less than Michael Fassbender.
Wannabe musician, Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) lands himself a gig as keyboard player for an avant garde rock band, led by the enigmatic Frank (Fassbender). Desperate to succeed, Jon soon finds himself out of his depth and increasingly fascinated by Frank. When the band becomes a hit on the internet, Jon finds he becomes more important among his fellow musicians and is soon wrestling with the aggressive Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) for control of the group.
That massive head isn’t just a publicity stunt: it holds the key to Frank’s real character and gives Fassbender a serious acting challenge. He has to rely on his voice and body language to create the character but, let’s face it, he’s never been an actor to shy away from a difficult part. Drunken slave owner, sex addict, Macbeth’s on its way and now he’s a charismatic musical genius without a face. But why would somebody choose to spend their life wearing something so cumbersome and constricting?
Questions like that abound in the film and only some of them get answered. In the case of the head, it protects Frank from the world around him, distances him from the people in the band – even though he is more than happy to give bear hugs – and generally makes him feel safe. Curiously, he has a knack for bringing people together, helping them to stretch themselves and giving them the confidence to try something new. But underneath he’s too fragile and vulnerable to do the same for himself without the protection of his giant head and cannot cope with the attention the band receives when it becomes a viral sensation. He simply breaks down on stage.
One more thing about that head. It almost has a life of its own: apart from the one occasion when Frank applies lippy, lashes and rouge, its expression never changes, yet when you’re watching the film you’d swear it does. Which says a lot for Fassbender’s acting and how we react to the character. In fact, after a while, the head is simply the norm – it’s just part of him - so that his verbal descriptions of his facial expressions for the benefit of other people are both funny and endearing.
Yet although Frank gives the film its name and its most distinctive feature, it’s not really his story. The film is about Jon and his desire to fit in with the band, play avant garde music and be creative. Discovering that he and Frank come from similar backgrounds with small town attitudes encourages him to press on, spending all his savings so that the band can spend 18 months in a log cabin recording their new album. Following your dream has become something of a mantra in recent years and Jon is most definitely doing that, but he’s unable to face the painful truth that he doesn’t have the talent. And when you don’t have the necessary gifts to turn your dream to a reality, what do you do? For Jon, it means realising that nothing has changed for him: he remains what he’s always been. An outsider.
Frank is billed as an offbeat comedy and there’s a great deal of humour in the first two thirds of the film but when Jon appears to be taking over the band, all that stops. The tone changes because we know Frank will find it difficult to cope with the pupil becoming the master – or at least trying to be. It’s also a film that changes direction and likes to do it with the maximum amount of drama. Moving from his boring job, John finds himself in Ireland...and then in Texas for the South by South West festival; and a couple of car accidents along the way come completely out of the blue.
In turn funny, engaging and sad, Frank is full of twists and turns – both in terms of the plot and the emotions on show. But all that variation gives it a somewhat uneven tone so that you never quite know where you are with it and that isn’t always comfortable. Perhaps that’s what Abrahamson wants. It means that we can share in both Jon and Frank’s isolation.
Frank is screened at Sundance London on Friday, 25 and Sunday, 27 April. It goes on general release around the UK on Friday, 9 May.
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