The Best Alternate Reality Movies 3: Franklyn (2008, dir: Gerald McMorrow) 9/10
Franklyn, I’ll confess, is my all time favourite ‘alternate reality’ film, an underrated, extravagant gem from first time director McMorrow, described on Wikipedia as a ‘science fantasy’. I must disagree with the ‘science’ part, though. This stunning interior journey (the name ‘Franklyn’ is never explained) is a portrait of despair, alienation and broken hearts, and how one copes with these things (i.e. by spinning personal fantasies). Its plot is tortuously complex, multi-layered and almost indescribable. But I will try!
Franklyn’s main character, Emilia, is played by Eva Green, a disaffected film student who creates a set of video ‘suicides’ – all in the name of art, you understand. (Before performing these risky acts of self-harm she dials the emergency services, who may or may not succeed in rescuing her.) Overlapping Emilia’s story is that of Jonathan Preest (Ryan Phillippe), a masked ‘hero’ seeking out a child molester among the dog-eat-dog, urban deprivation of Meanwhile City – all weird religions, and steam-punk fashion. But ‘Preest’, we can see, is a fantasy figure, witnessed among the City’s other characters (straight out of Sin City or V for Vendetta). Yet we also meet them as real people in our own 3D world. Or do we?
For example, Brit actor Bernard Hill is an official at the Ministry in Meanwhile City whereas in the real world he’s Peter Esser, a bereft church warden seeking his errant son, David. Also, there’s the ever watchable Art Malik who plays Tarrant, the head of the Ministry; in ‘real life’ he’s a military psychiatrist whom Esser visits (David – a veteran of the Iraq war – being the ‘real world’ version of Preest). Got that?
If this isn’t complicated enough, there’s also Milo (Sam Riley) whose recent engagement has been called off, and his flame-haired, childhood friend ‘Sally’, who he invented to cope with the loss of his father. (‘Sally’ is also played by Eva Green, which confuses things – nothing new there, then.) Emilia is also traumatised by some unnamed abuse (by her father). These ‘real life’ parts of the film anchor it with an emotional weight that balances out the obvious fictional sequences – like the dark, graphic-novel of Meanwhile City. Or do they?
So far, so unclear, but we can see that what unites David/Preest, Esser, Milo and Emilia is that they’ve all lost something – a sister, a son, a fiancee and, in Emilia’s case, childhood innocence. We watch, baffled, for the first hour, aware that they’re all related in some meaningful way – but how? Will all these strands converge at the end, and reveal the answer? What we need to know is: from whose point of view are we seeing this?
Warning – spoilers appear from here! At the climax, Milo and ‘Sally’ sit in a restaurant on a rain-soaked night in urban London; another patron is there too – Peter Esser (David’s father). Across the road is Emilia’s gloomy flat, and David – equipped with rifle – has forced his way in, intending to shoot his father through an open window. More clues follow: David spies Emilia’s drawings, which resemble the Ministry in Meanwhile City. At one point, Sally looks at Milo and asks: ‘Can’t you feel it? It’s nearly time.’ Across the road, Emilia has threatened to blow herself and David up. This is the point where her suicide fantasies become real. It’s nearly time. Before she exits, tossing a zippo lighter into the gas-filled room, the flat becomes an image from Meanwhile City – complete with Jonathan Preest. (There’s a clue here if you’ve been paying attention!)
The flat explodes and erupts in flames with David still in it, as Emilia runs into the street below. There she finds Milo, wet and injured from gunshot whilst the ambulance has mysteriously vanished. ‘You’re hurt,’ Emilia says to Milo. The camera pans upwards and we see lingering shots of Gothic spires and dingy rooftops and realise we’ve seen them before – we’re in Meanwhile City, after all. We’re seeing things – have been seeing things – from Emilia’s point of view.
You have to look hard for these clues, though. Franklyn is a film that doesn’t yield its mysteries easily, which is as much down to the direction as it is the script – both ably handled by McMorrow. Like the best personal relationships, Franklyn demands your time, attention and understanding. (And rewards them, too.) It divides the critics into two camps – one which likes it for its refusal to signpost inner meanings; the other, which dismisses it as phoney ‘art house pretension’. But this is because, like any genuine mystery, you either get or you don’t. It’s said that for those who believe in God, no rational explanation is necessary; for those who don’t, none is even possible. I prefer to think that Franklyn is a just little like that!
Images: Creative Commons license (Public Domain) courtesy of Wikimedia.