Image Entertainment // 2008 // 98 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // November 20th, 2009
Beyond reality. Beyond fear. Beyond imagination.
Originality is tough to come by these days, and credit is deserved where directors and filmmakers make a serious attempt to come up with something fresh and new. A few Brits rise to the challenge with Franklyn, a surreal and somber sci-fi noir film that emulates the big-budget panache of a Hollywood blockbuster, minus the financial costs. Franklyn (Blu-ray) deserves praise for trying something new, even if that "new" is really just recycled bits from various genres thrown into a blender.
In Meanwhile City, a futuristic dystopia of chaos, disorder, religious madness, and oppression, a masked detective named Jonathan Preest (Ryan Philippe) prowls the streets, investigating the abduction of a young girl by a religious cult called Duplex Ride. His target is "The Individual," a mysterious antagonist that no one seems to know much about, but one thing is absolutely certain -- Preest is going to kill a man tonight.
Meanwhile, in the real world, three individuals struggle with their own demons and depressions. Emilia (Eva Green) struggles to come up with a dynamite art project for her professor, pushing the boundaries between suicide, death, and artistic expression -- with predictably distressing results. Peter (Bernard Hill) tends a church and keeps a bed ready for his son, who has been gone for a long time. Hope springs eternal in his heart for his return. Finally, Milo (Sam Riley) languishes after his bride-to-be abandons him right before the wedding. Lonely and jaded, he keeps catching flashes of a red-haired woman on the streets of London, and follows her, believing her to be a long-lost love.
What do all four have to do with each other? Yeah, I'm not sure either.
Combining the most sensational elements of comic book adventures, surreal thrillers, and film noir, Franklyn is a modest-budgeted film with big ambitions. It is a strange and complicated film, not necessarily in plot, but simply in trying to reconcile its numerous and often contradictory elements. Divided into four distinct and interweaving parts, Franklyn is a bit of a puzzle; a British sci-fi film blending elements of noir and thriller into a perplexing muddle of borrowed tropes and elements from better films. Call it a fantasy thriller, call it a romance film, or call it a science fiction film; everything but the kitchen sink shows up in Franklyn. On their own, all four plots would indeed make fine films -- but put all together, it takes a while to sort out.
One could complain that Franklyn is an overly complicated film, but this is not so -- the only confusion comes in seeing how the film attempts to harmonize its disparate elements. A masked detective is investigating a murder, a self-destructive art student flirting with death and destruction, a desperate father anxiously waiting for his son, and a lovelorn romantic stinging over the dissolving of his upcoming marriage. Three of these plots can easily coexist in the same film; the fourth, a surreal alternate reality in a steampunk-influenced London with masked maniacs and religious fanatics, comes right out of left field. It is challenging to reconcile all the erratic elements in Franklyn into a cohesive plot, but undeniably entertaining to watch the filmmakers try. You can't fault Franklyn for lack of ambition.
One easily compares Franklyn to other, more iconic films on the market. Brazil and Dark City come to mind quickly, and these are flattering comparisons. Great care has gone into creating a surreal, almost-real-but-not-quite alternate cityscape full of mysterious black predators, masked adversaries, and confusion. The film disguises its modest budget well; some clever costume and set pieces blend with generous servings of CGI to sell the illusion of a film with much more money, but the fragmented plot means we only spent at best a third of our time in this fantastic location. Too often the film cuts back to the other, less interesting plot lines, leaving us wanting the more surreal elements. The protagonist Preest also bears far, far too much resemblance to Rorschach in the Watchmen comic series, to say nothing of the Watchmen movie (but since Franklyn came out in 2008, that isn't exactly a fair comparison). Still, you have to admit: short, gruff-speaking vigilante with a trench coat, trolling the shadows and leaping on rooftops, doggedly and single-mindedly investigating crime, with a white mask with black spots on it? Someone owes Alan Moore a royalty check -- not that he'd ever accept one.
So is Franklyn worth more than the sum of its parts? It's hard to say. Like many first-time feature directors, Gerald McMorrow has crammed every good idea he could come up with into this film, regardless of how cohesively they come together, or how emotionally flimsy the finale ends up. The cast is not quite A-grade, but holds its own. Ryan Phillippe is bizarrely cast as the vigilante detective, but somehow pulls it off, even without the mask on. Eva Green effortlessly pulls off the distraught, suffering artist, and Sam Riley is perfectly moody and distraught in his role. Ultimately, all four storylines have merit in their own right, and it is the classic conundrum of the jack-of-all-trades film; it masters nothing. Audiences want more of the Jonathan Preest storyline, but we spend far too little time here. The other three storylines are interesting in their own way, but the narrative thread that ties them all together is flimsy and frayed -- one hard pull and Franklyn tumbles apart at the seams. You have to praise the film for daring to take on so much in one go, but at the same time, the mediocre outcome is not all that surprising. It takes serious skill to juggle this many balls in the air for over 90 minutes.
Despite a modest budget, the 1080p transfer is impressive, making the most of CGI-generated backdrops in Meanwhile City, effectively selling the illusion of a fantastic, surreal London. Dark shadows and deep grey tones look very handsome in high definition. Normal London sequences are very natural, with balanced, slightly muted color tones. Grain is evident and faintly detectable, especially during black sequences, but is never distracting or detracting from the overall picture quality. The transfer shines in simple, innocuous moments, like the detail of hair or clothing textures, all showing in perfect detail. All in all, an impressive presentation; Franklyn (Blu-Ray) may not be quite up to the most top-notch Hollywood standards, but certainly isn't too shabby for a film on a foreign budget. McMorrow definitely has a career ahead of him.
Audio comes in a DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track only, and it does the job, but is not overly impressive. Bass response is average, dialogue is clear, but the mix is a bit fussy on overall volume levels. Fight sequences erupt with pleasing intensity, but then quickly cut to maudlin dialogue scenes that require quick remote adjustment. Rear channels do the job, but don't really add a lot to the party beyond the barest of ambient noises, like wind and the rustle of crowds. The score is dull and forgettable. A standard Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track could have been substituted here and audiences would be hard-pressed to tell the difference.
Extras, likewise, are also on par with a standard DVD release -- we get cast interviews with the producer, director and others for about thirty minutes, a short making-of featurette, some deleted scenes and a trailer. All the features are SD and in stereo, so not much work went into them for the Blu-Ray release.
Okay, honestly? Franklyn? Worst name for a movie ever. If you pick up this Blu-Ray and give it a cursory once-over, you'll think -- like I did -- that this is a B-grade horror movie, some crummy slasher film about a monstrous freak who takes an axe and goes terrorizing some sleepy community, with screaming girls running in terror from a masked Franklyn...ugh. Any title would be more appealing than Franklyn.
A wholly British sci-fi drama pitching a reasonable emulation of the Hollywood style, Franklyn is not quite up to the quality of script or enjoyment of its peers, but makes for a nice rental for those looking for something new. Not a "must see" title, but not quite as bad as it could have been. If for no other reason, you have to give points to the creators of Franklyn for sheer ambition.
A strange and trippy adventure; not guilty, but at best a rental.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes