For someone who has never been a fan of the myopic, small-scale social realism that is too often synonymous with contemporary British cinema, the stirrings that are currently visible in the work of home-grown filmmakers are an exciting development. These ferments are evident in the season of new British cinema hosted by the ICA, which includes films such as Summer Scars, The Disappeared, The Hide and Crack Willow, which respectively attempt to infuse the reality of hoodies, council estates, bird watching or daily misery with something deeper, darker, richer and more mysterious. Simultaneously, June sees the DVD release of Gerald McMorrow’s Franklyn, an inventive, ambitious, genre-defying debut also located on the borderline between the real and the imaginary, which deserves more attention than it received on its theatrical release.
Franklyn opens in the retro-futuristic world of ‘Meanwhile City’, which combines Gothic architecture with post-apocalyptic urban stylings and is ruled by religion (any religion, adherence to one of the myriad cults, which include for instance the Seventh Day Manicurists, being compulsory) and policed by ‘Clerics’ clad in austere 17th-century black garb. We are guided through the bazaar-like atmosphere by a masked narrator called Preest (Ryan Phillippe), a mysterious lone operator who expresses himself in clichéd noir language and is up against the Individual, the leader of one of the most powerful religious sects that rule the city. The film cuts back and forth between this fantasy world and the real world, where we follow the three parallel stories of Milo (Sam Riley), a young man who has just been dumped by his fiancée; Emilia (Eva Green), a troubled young artist who attempts suicide every month as part of her art project; and Peter Esser (Bernard Hill), who is looking for his son, an ex-soldier who has disappeared from the mental institution where he was interned.
Aesthetically and conceptually, McMorrow aims high, but while he dazzles on the former level, he is not as successful on the latter. Although the film was made on a tight budget, Meanwhile City is beautifully crafted and is brimming with atmosphere and visual ideas. Preest’s striking hollow-eyed mask is perfectly sinister and marks him out as an ambivalent character from the start, contrasting with the narration that naturally places the audience on his side. The first transition between fantasy and real world is effected through shots of Gothic details of the Houses of Parliament, a great idea that draws attention to the beauty and magic of pre-industrial London, as it co-exists with the soulless steel and glass conformity of the capital’s modern developments.
Characters appear in both worlds in various guises, and the manner in which the many strands of the story fit together is not revealed until fairly late into the film. The labyrinthine narrative is pleasurable while it lasts, and by contrast the explanation, when it comes, feels rather trite and overly simplistic. So much effort and imagination have gone into creating a sumptuous, textured, enigmatic fantasy world, that it seems a shame to just explain it away in such a manner. None of the initial ambiguity and complexity remain at the end as the focus shifts to what is essentially a twisted but sentimental romantic drama.
Despite these flaws, Franklyn is a bold, impressive debut feature that attempts to break away from the narrow scope that has characterised much of recent British filmmaking. Visually, McMorrow shows himself to be a remarkably accomplished director; all he needs now is a script that matches his talents and provides substantial concepts on which to build even more elaborate cinematic constructions.