Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Major players: Michael Fassbender, Domnhall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal
Out of five? 3.5
No prizes for guessing who’s behind that big, bizarre head in the photograph. There’s been enough advanced coverage for Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank for you to know it’s no less than Michael Fassbender in the film’s title role. And his distinctive headgear certainly dominates the film visually – but is the film actually about him in the first place?
Wannabe musician Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) is stuck in a seaside town with a boring job, until he manages to land a gig as a keyboard player with an avant garde band. Before he knows it, he’s sucked into the group’s world and that of its charismatic but eccentric leader, Frank, he of the papier mache head. After gigs in Dublin, the band spend 18 months in the country working on their next album but when they become an overnight sensation on the internet, it looks like Jon could take over the band. But there’s formidable opposition in the shape of Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) to contend with.
Frank is billed as “an offbeat comedy” by its makers and it’s certainly both of those, although the humour is very much confined to the first two thirds of the film. Attitudes to Frank’s appearance, his verbal descriptions of his facial expressions and Jon’s awkwardness among the band are just some of the sources but, in the final third of the film, when it looks like Jon is going to take over the band, it all dissolves and is replaced with anxiety. How will Frank cope with somebody trying to take away the most important thing in his life? It’s all tied up with one of the themes underlying the film, that of the almost imperceptible line between so-called mental ‘normality’ and illness.
To the outside world, the man in the giant head is enigmatic, mysterious, but with a wonderful gift for bringing people together, giving them the confidence to stretch themselves and try something new. But, underneath, it’s a confidence he doesn’t have: inside the head, he’s protected, distanced from those around him – even though he’s more than happy to give bear hugs – and he can be what he wants to be. But, as we discover, the reality is something different – vulnerability, fragility and overall smallness. And it means he can’t cope with large groups of people – and that includes playing live on stage.
Frank’s a misfit, but the head makes him an obvious one. Yet Jon, who’s actually the film’s central character, is one as well: it’s just not so apparent. Unsurprisingly, Jon feels an affinity with Frank when he discovers that his hero comes from a similar background to himself, full of narrow, small town attitudes. But the reason Jon is an outsider is something that he can’t face up to. Following your dreams is something of a contemporary mantra and Jon is doing just that – but he simply doesn’t have the talent. He’s no better than an average musician and, no matter how hard he tries, he can never change that. And that means he’ll never truly belong amongst musicians.
As a film, Frank provokes a whole range of emotions: it’s engaging, funny, sad, twisting and turning just like the story line. That gives it an uneven tone, with the comedy often at odds with the more serious moments. You never quite know where you are with the film, but perhaps that’s the unsettling effect that Abrahamson was looking to create.
One thing’s for sure. It cements Michael Fassbender’s reputation as the go-to actor for challenging roles. His performance is completely dependent on his voice and body language and it works brilliantly – so brilliantly that there are times when you’d swear that the features on the papier mache head have changed. They haven’t. What’s changed is your response to Frank as a person.
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.