It's easy to be fooled by the promotional material for Franklyn, including the trailer on this very disc. The white-masked and black-eyed figure and dark cityscape around which the release publicity is built suggest a tale with graphic novel origins, a vengeance-seeking antihero fighting for justice in an oppressive world dimensionally warped from our own. Well he is and he isn't. How much to reveal without giving things away is a tricky call here, but despite early appearances, V for Vendetta or Watchmen this ain't.
Four parallel stories unfold, three set in contemporary London, the fourth in the dystopian alternative universe of Meanwhile City. In our world, goth art student Emelia is working on a conceptual project that involves her being repeatedly rescued from suicide attempts; young Milo is getting ready to marry but still dreams of the girl he once loved; and the older Esser is searching for his missing son. At the same time over in Meanwhile City, the masked Preest (the influence of Watchmen's Rorschach is keenly felt here) is searching for a girl who has been kidnapped by a cult leader known as The Individual.
My speed of involvement in the stories varied quite a bit. Meanwhile City is vividly and hauntingly rendered, a blend of Dark City gloom with Brazil and Blade Runner texturing that may be created as much on computer as in physical set dressing, but still feels every bit as tangible as the London of the other three stories. It's also a lot more interesting, a city made up of thousands of religious cults in which Preest talks to us in growling voice-over (they always growl these days) and identifies himself as the city's only non-believer. From the moment I laid eyes on Meanwhile City, the white masked Preest and the chimney-hatted clerics who serve as the city's police, I was hooked.
By comparison, the other three tales take their time to even get interesting, let alone build the same level of intrigue. Despite her visual similarity to Fight Club's more instantly enthralling Marla Singer, it's Emelia who gets there first. She maybe a confused and pretentious would-be nihilist, but she's initially got more character appeal than wet blanket Milo or the hesitant Esser – I was well into the second half before I started paying either of them the sort of heed that their stories were probably asking for. I never really connected with Milo at all, and by the time I became involved in Esser's quest, the what's-going-on? cat was out of the bag, so to speak.
It's the mystery of how the stories are related and will eventually connect that proves both the film's key hook and its Achilles heel. Part of what keeps you on board with the London stories is wondering just how the hell they are going to link to Preest's adventures in Meanwhile, and the more that you puzzle, the higher your expectations are likely to be for a humdinger of a revelation, and the bigger your disappointment if it doesn't live up to expectations. Whether the film delivers or not on this score is going to be a personal call, but I have to admit to experiencing a real sense of let-down, partly because I've been here before more than once (there's a similar story strand in the brilliant anime series Paranoia Agent, for example), but also because it becomes increasingly clear that the narrative core lies in one of the London tales, and frankly Meanwhile City and Preest have a lot more potential for further exploration than the considerably less enthralling trio in the here and now. I will say that the cross-world connection is easier to swallow in contemplative retrospect, and the film scores points for its gradual reveal rather than going for a big moment of revelation, which softens any sense of disappointment by encouraging us to work it out for ourselves before the last act confirmation.
For all its fine design and texturing, however, the Meanwhile story still proves a lot less complex than first impressions suggest, and I can't be the only one who feels that the imagination applied to the look and feel of this world has not been extended to the place and character names. Calling the only non-believer in a city in which religion is compulsory Preest and the chief villain The Individual is a bit too close to something first year media students might come up with. The same goes for Meanwhile City – read the parallel story plot out loud and more than once you'll find yourself saying something like "meanwhile, in the city..." Geddit?
If it sounds like I'm in two minds about Franklyn it's because I am. The concept at the film's core may not be as new as some have claimed, but it's developed with confidence and real imagination and realised on the sort of scale that would simply never have found the necessary funding in pre-CG days (the budget was something in the region of $12,000,000, a paltry figure when compared to Hollywood comic book movie budgets). The performances are pleasingly low key – Bernard Hill as Esser does a particularly good job – although this does backfire a bit when wedded to characters that could use a bit of spark to make them more worthy of audience engagement.
There's much that is good here, and the film's flirtation with religious dogma is intriguing enough to call out for a lot more screen time, adding to the sense that Preest's adventures in Meanwhile City deserve a film of their own, and I'm saying that with full knowledge of its specific role in this narrative. Yet try as I might I couldn't shake of my sense of disappointment as the stories finally intersected, or the feeling of having been a little cheated when two of them turn out to be linked to others by little more than chance. My irritation was completed by an ending I'm unwilling to spoil for newcomers but which prompted a loud cry of "Oh, pur-leeze!" from my irate viewing companion.
Franklyn is still an intriguing work that scores serious points for never feeling like a first feature nor playing at all like a British film for much of its running time. It's also one whose extraordinary visuals, dense texturing and unsettling tone suggest that director Gerald McMorrow could very quickly find himself poached by Hollywood and in charge of a considerably bigger budget than he had here.
Although the complex visual texturing of Meanwhile City might seem born for HD, the film's low-key approach extends to the visuals, the toned down colour scheme and naturalistic lighting creating images that are always arresting but that do not necessarily pop off the screen in the manner of the above quoted fantasy and science-fiction influences. It's still a deliciously crisp transfer with an excellent level of detail and a lovely tonal range, something that really helps bring Meanwhile City to life, with some of CG-assisted wide shots looking genuinely astonishing. The scenes in London may be not be so instantly eye-catching, but they have their own, more subtle but no less carefully judged aesthetic that really benefits from the sharpness, colour reproduction and contrast range of this transfer. A very nice job.
Soundtrack-wise you've a choice between Dolby TrueHD surround and LCPM stereo. Running through a regular DTS amp, the uncompressed stereo track is louder and has a little more kick than the surround, with background and location sounds more clearly evident, but the subtlety of the surround track has its own appeal, and the use of the rear speakers to enhance the sense of place and spread the music around the room certainly adds to the atmosphere. Both display an excellent range and solid bass when required, and it's likely that the TrueHD track leaps a little more when run through an HD amp.
A Moment in The Meanwhile (29:42)
Don't be fooled by the running time, this is essentially an extended EPK in which the actors and filmmakers talk about the project in progress and praise the script, the originality and each other's contributions. Director McMorrow comes across as a thoroughly likeable human being and one with a very clear handle on what he's doing, something others respond very positively to. Some information provided about lighting, set design, costumes and shooting style makes this worthwhile.
Deleted Scenes (4:12)
Three deleted scenes, the first two of which are particularly interesting. Emelia's encounter with an irate medical worker is telling, while a semi-comic and very Brazil-like sequence involving bureaucracy and a religion based on beards further illustrates the considerable story development potential of Meanwhile City.
A nicely assembled sell that really pushes Meanwhile City as the main story, which is understandable but could be setting comic book junkies up for a bit of a let down.
All the extras are standard def 576p.
Oh, so close. If ever there was a film whose effectiveness will be down to personal taste and viewing history then Franklyn is it, hailed as a true original in some quarters but dismissed for pilfering from the Watchmen and Rorschach graphic novels in others. There are certainly visual similarities between Preest and Rorschach, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' right-wing antihero, but with the Meanwhile City story just one of four in the film, there's more going on here than a simple comic book rehash. My problems with the non-Meanwhile characters will not be shared by all, but I stand by them and remain dissatisfied with how the stories finally interconnected and concluded. But there's still lots to admire here and I'd heartily encourage anyone with an taste for offbeat and adventurous cinema to give it a look, particularly on E1's visually and aurally impressive Blu-ray disc.