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A belated movie discovery

I won­der if any read­ers watched the fas­ci­nat­ing BBC series The Secret His­to­ry Of Our Streets a few months ago, which traced 150 years of social his­to­ry of sev­er­al Lon­don locations.

In the intro there was a view of a fas­ci­nat­ing “dark Satan­ic mills” kind of city (see above), pre­sent­ed in a con­text in which you would imag­ine it was rep­re­sent­ing Vic­to­ri­an Lon­don. But if you look for a moment at the image, you’ll see at once that there was nev­er a Lon­don quite like that.

In fact it was a brief clip from a movie called Franklyn — and believe it or not, I know about this movie sole­ly because, intrigued by that intro­duc­to­ry image, I cap­tured the frame, stuck it into Google Image Search, and looked at what came up. Hence I came to this film four years after it came out.

Franklyn (not the world’s most inspired title, but it is actu­al­ly quite impor­tant to the action) tells a very nice­ly detailed and inter­twined tale of four char­ac­ters and moves between mod­ern Lon­don and a kind of neo-Steam­punk-medi­ae­val ana­logue, “Mean­while City”, in which all the inhab­i­tants are oblig­ed to have a reli­gion of some sort. It’s a very noir, Steam­punk, SF, psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller. There’s a cer­tain amount of vio­lence, which I don’t go for in gen­er­al but here it’s fair­ly essen­tial to the sto­ry: that is prob­a­bly what earned it a 15 cer­tifi­cate in the UK (and “R” in the US).

The film fea­tures gor­geous cos­tumes and CGI, yet on a rel­a­tive­ly small bud­get. Not only that, it’s a British film, with British fund­ing too, writ­ten and direct­ed by Ger­ald McMor­row. It was his first fea­ture, and con­sid­er­ing the com­plex­i­ty of the plot and the visu­al require­ments of the sto­ry, he does extreme­ly well IMO. Mor­row wrote it him­self, inspired by a short film of his, Thes­pi­an X.

The Mean­while City seg­ments are beau­ti­ful­ly done, and that’s where the CGI is con­cen­trat­ed, of course. The bud­get was able to be rel­a­tive­ly small by virtue of the fact that only around 20% of the movie requires top-lev­el effects like city-build­ing and recre­ation of busy streets with all man­ner of char­ac­ters milling about. The detail in the par­al­lel world is excel­lent, and the cos­tumes are won­der­ful and wondrous.

Yes, there are faint echoes of oth­er films here (notably V for Vendet­ta, some have sug­gest­ed, but apart from a char­ac­ter in a mask and a Lon­don set­ting most of the time, that’s about the extent of the similarity).

Reviews at the time of release (2008) were mixed, but that just shows how review­ers have dif­fi­cul­ty with sophis­ti­cat­ed plot-lines: it worked fine for me, and although there were some details that weren’t quite under­stand­able until you’d seen the film through, real­is­ing what those details meant after­wards was part of the appeal (I felt the same about Sixth Sense for exam­ple). And I do like a film where I can’t tell what’s going to hap­pen or how it’s going to end.

Some crit­i­cised it for not devel­op­ing the char­ac­ters suf­fi­cient­ly, but in fact I was­n’t con­scious of that. We learn about them grad­u­al­ly as the sto­ry evolves. We need to learn about them grad­u­al­ly, because the entire plot revolves around the con­flu­ence of the char­ac­ters and giv­ing us their back-sto­ries up front would be ruinous. Like Sixth Sense, you do not want to know too much about this sto­ry before­hand (don’t watch the fas­ci­nat­ing “Mak­ing of” extra on the DVD until after you’ve seen the film, for example).

Yes, there are some issues with this film, but they’re minor IMO and it’s def­i­nite­ly worth a look. Actu­al­ly two looks, because once you know how it ends, you’ll find you can sud­den­ly grasp some lit­tle sub­tleties through­out the film that per­haps passed you by. There are even some ele­ments of humour that are sur­pris­ing­ly appropriate.

And look out for the impres­sive dif­fer­ent use of colour and shoot­ing approach for each char­ac­ter. Mean­while City is all earthy tones, for exam­ple, with lit­tle or no blue. Scenes involv­ing the char­ac­ter Sal­ly are always warm and well-lit. Mr Ess­er senior is often seen in sil­hou­ette, in the mid­dle dis­tance, with cool colours tend­ing towards the blue. And so on. You may also notice (well, you will now) that as the action shifts back and forth between the two worlds, each loca­tion in Lon­don has a cor­re­spond­ing loca­tion in Mean­while City that echoes it visu­al­ly or at least functionally.

Here’s the offi­cial trailer:

The movie also has a very effec­tive sound­track by tal­ent­ed com­pos­er Joby Tal­bot (Once Around the Sun, Hitch­hik­er’s Guide to the Galaxy, Divine Com­e­dy, etc) with an impres­sive major the­mat­ic element.