With one half of the film taking place in a nightmare gothic fantasy world and the other half taking place in modern-day London, the former a darker reflection of the latter, the comparison to Franklyn’s schizophrenic split between fantasy and reality is obviously going to be made with Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, but in cinematic terms, Gerald McMorrow’s film fits closer to the sensibilities of Terry Gilliam’s dark fantasies (Time Bandits, Brazil and even Tideland) where the dividing line between good and evil, between fiction and reality, is not so clearly obvious. Added to this, McMorrow introduces some Kieslowski-like meditations on the subject of death, bereavement and loss and the vagaries of fate and chance that draw connections between people. If the resulting combination of these elements is somewhat disjointed and not entirely convincing on a character level, Franklyn manages to bring the various strands to a satisfying conclusion that works at least within its own terms.
Each of the four main characters in the film is finding it difficult to cope with a severely traumatic experience of loss in their lives. In the dark, gothic, futuristic fantasy world of Meanwhile City, Jonathan Preest (Ryan Philippe) is a lone atheist in a world dominated by cults and religions, where there is even Seventh-Day Manicurist’s have their own sect. Donning a skull-like mask, Preest is hunting down the leader of one particular sect, known as the Individual, who he holds responsible for the death of his young sister. Seeking information on the whereabouts of the Individual on the dark streets of the city, Preest has to beware of the patrols of chimney-hatted Clerics, Meanwhile City’s dangerous law-enforcement agency, who are trying to capture him.
In present-day London, Emilia (Eva Green) is an art student who has deep problems in her relationship with her mother (Susannah York), blaming her for the disappearance of her father. Her father’s absence has left a deep hole in Emilia’s life, one she tries to express in her art project, a performance piece that involves her video-recording her elaborate attempts to commit suicide. The suicide attempts are real in every respect, only prevented from being carried to their conclusion by a phone-call that Emilia makes to the emergency services beforehand. A cry for help certainly, but a cry that Emilia feels there is no-one there to answer, and without a meaningful conclusion, she knows that her work and her life will remain unsatisfactory.
One of the subjects of Emilia’s previous art experiments involving the recording of random strangers, Milo (Sam Riley) is also going through a difficult stage in his life, having broken up with his fiancée not long before their planned wedding. The presence of a mysterious red-haired woman seen from the corner of his eye on the streets of London however reminds him of an old childhood sweetheart, and he relentlessly pursues this elusive obsession. Meanwhile, Peter (Bernard Hill) is in London looking for his missing son David, who is ill and, according to the authorities, poses a threat to himself and to others.
Director Gerald McMorrow risks trying the viewer’s patience for a significant portion of the film, slipping between one character and the next, between one world and the next, in fractured segments with no clear link connecting them together. If the viewer is held, it’s down to the excellent production design, just as effective in creating the vast gothic structures and dark alleys of Preest’s Meanwhile City, as it is in depicting the environments of the characters in contemporary London. If the film’s only purpose is in creating a striking puzzle and eventually reconnecting its shattered fragments into a coherent and meaningful whole, then Franklyn undoubtedly succeeds and rewards the viewer who is willing to stick with it, tying everything together satisfactorily and leaving no loose ends.
On a human and emotional level however the film is less successful, and it’s here that it really counts. The depth of the trauma that occurs with each of the characters should correspond with the fictional or fantasy element in their lives that sustains them through it, but what should pass for reality in the contemporary London sections is just as much a fantasy as the sequences in Meanwhile City. The significant events of loss in each of the characters lives aren’t fully explored or their resultant trauma explained and their actions consequently seem somewhat disproportionate and, let’s just say, “fanciful”. Franklyn remains then a lovely looking film and a delightful little puzzle that resolves itself rather neatly, but it has no real heart and soul behind it – something that is also evident in the performances – and without any sense of realism in the depiction of the characters to underpin the flights of fancy, any points the film has to make about chance, life, love, the randomness of fate and encounter come across as rather hollow.