Film Review | Frank

It may have all the trappings of a self-consciously quirky hipster fever dream, but true to its title and the name of its masked protagonists, Lenny Abrahamson's semi-fictional odyssey is one of the most honest films about the creative process to emerge in recent times.

Odd ones in: Maggie Gyllenhall, Michael Fassbender and Domnhall Gleeson in Lenny Abrahamson’s strange and heartfelt love letter to musical outsiders
Odd ones in: Maggie Gyllenhall, Michael Fassbender and Domnhall Gleeson in Lenny Abrahamson’s strange and heartfelt love letter to musical outsiders

Films about artists tend to be slotted into a single, reductive category. Namely – and lamely – they tend to be stories about misunderstood geniuses who eventually discover that they are unique and beautiful snowflakes who are great artists to boot: all they need to remember is to believe in themselves and out the art will flow, and it will be genuine, heartfelt and uniquely excellent work.

Even films about real-life artists tend to slide easily into formula. For unsurprising reasons, it’s often artists with the most interesting-cum-tortured life stories that tend to be picked in the first place, with the work that made them famous taking a secondary role – often used as just stylistic window dressing, or the climactic flourish to an otherwise typical story of a hero overcoming life’s odds.

So forgive me for greeting director Lenny Abrahamson’s fourth feature film, Frank, with a relief that is so strong it almost amounts to unprofessional bias. The film in which Irish-German hardworking hunk-thespian du jour Michael Fassbender plays a musician whose face is permanently obscured by a bobble-head mask appears to almost deliberately tick the ‘tortured artist’ boxes, relying on an aggressive quirkiness to see it through.

But like the viscous centre of a Cadbury crème egg, its delicious uniqueness is embedded within, and destroying clichés becomes the film’s mission.

As it happens, the titular Frank (Fassbender) is not our protagonist at first. That role belongs to Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), an aspiring musician “trapped” in cosy suburbia. Composing music in his spare time while still living in his parents’ apartment, Jon catches a lucky break when an obscure American band, ‘Soronprfbs’, who were set to play in his hometown, lose their keyboard player for the night due to a botched suicide attempt.

The gig itself is cut short after Clara (Maggie Gyllenhall), the band’s theremin player, throws a tantrum, but Jon is surprisingly called back to join them for a gig in Ireland. Initially panicky about the fact that the invitation actually meant a retreat to record the band’s new album – instead of just a one-off gig – Jon is ultimately flattered to form part of such a unique and talented ensemble, which is completed by the sympathetic (but depressive) Don (Scoot McNairy), the band’s manager, and the French-speaking drummer-bassist duo Nana (Carla Azar) and Baraque (François Civil).

Tweeting and YouTubing the heady experience, Jon also faces none-too-subtle hostility from Clara, who for mysterious reasons of her own feels an instant revulsion towards him.

But it’s the band’s front man who remains the most enigmatic figure of all. Clearly a musical genius, Frank is also a gentle spirit who belies a tortured past – a tortured past that Jon romanticises at his own peril, particularly once tensions come to a boil when the band score a golden opportunity to play at the prestigious Texas multimedia festival, South-By-Southwest.

Though mostly inspired by British musician-comedian Frank Sidebottom (an on-stage alter-ego by Chris Sievey) ­– the film’s co-screenwriter Jon Ronson was once part of Sidebottom’s band – the film liberally mixes in elements of other cult musical figures, like Daniel Johnson and Captain Beefheart, remaining first and foremost a work of fiction.

This liberates the film both from the strictures of fact and Hollywood-entrenched clichés, with Abrahamson filming in a mode that’s both loose, almost documentary-like in parts and beautiful in others: its gritty-indie approach belies the director’s ability to eke out moments of lyrical beauty from its settings, be they a cloying British suburb or the rustic idyll of an Irish forest retreat.

But it’s the (dis)placement of the film’s hero that garners the most points. Though Jon elicits pity and sympathy at first, it rapidly becomes apparent that he’s actually a cipher whose mercenary intentions obscure any genuine desire to make art.

Gleeson, previously seen in Joe Wright’s sumptuous Anna Karenina (2012) as the lovelorn Konstantin Levin, is perfectly cast, with a key inversion of his Karenina role: where Konstantin was initially insecure but ultimately noble, Jon ends up succumbing to pettiness.

It’s a wonderfully refreshing inversion of the budding-artist stereotype, and there’s an irresistible dark comedy to the fact that Gyllenhall’s Clara is sort-of on the side of the angels when she insists on behaving like a total bitch to Jon.

Gyllenhall’s strong performance lends credence to what could have been a grotesque caricature, and the same is true for the rest of the cast. Scoot McNairy once again proves that he’s one of the most underrated actors of our generation: nervy and likeable in equal measure.

But it’s understandably Fassbender who will garner the most attention, but he’ll do so precisely by not drawing too much attention to himself.

Thankfully far distant in tone and style to his shouty but much-praised turn as evil slave driver Edwin Epps in 12 Years a Slave, Fassbender is subdued but heartfelt, admirably committing to a role that requires him to keep his face covered for the duration of the film – despite being one of the hottest actors working at the moment.

Frank will be screening at St James Cavalier on October 17 at 21:00 and October 19 at 16:30.

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