There are no ironclad guarantees in moviemaking. Even the greatest talents are capable of producing turkeys.
A star-studded, visionary-led film that by all rights should be a “must-see” so easily turns out to be a “must-miss” – another dud relegated to the depths of a petrol station’s DVD bargain bin.
Whatever the film though, and whatever its quality, there is one simple trick for instant emotional investment: put a dog in the movie. No matter the story or situation people can get behind man’s best friend.
With a film like Róise & Frank, the latest work by long-time writing and directing team Rachael Moriarty and Peter Murphy, the dog is at the forefront. He’s there on the poster, and is likely a big reason for people’s interest in the film.
For Moriarty and Murphy then, there’s a promise to live up to. Is the movie worthy of the cute canine on the cover? I’ll state upfront that the answer is yes.
Róise & Frank begins with a tour through a darkened country cottage. The curtains are drawn, rooms are closed off and, in the darkness, recently widowed Róise (Bríd Ní Neachtain) shuffles about her empty home without energy or purpose. Days roll into each other through montage.
Róise’s morning routine, or mourning routine, sees her eat a lonely breakfast and spend the rest of the day reliving her late husband Frank’s glory days through recordings of old hurling finals. The living room walls and shelves are a shrine to Frank’s sporting life, as well as to his life with Róise.
The framing of these scenes puts Róise in the centre of a room bordered on all sides by darkness. She is trapped by grief. The only light in her life comes from the flickering memories on her television set.
It seems that nothing can bring Róise back to the world. She brushes off calls from her son, the romantic overtures of her annoying neighbour (Lorcan Cranitch) and the early morning bouncing of a sliotar against her outside wall where a local hurling hopeful practises every day before catching the bus to school.
Nothing moves Róise until a stray dog, Frank (Barley), takes a shine to her. Greeting her in the morning with incessant barking and tailing her movements through the day. Róise’s initial reaction is to shoo the dog away, as she does with the humans that show interest in her, but the stray isn’t easily got rid of.
Róise is surprised by her new companion’s foreknowledge of her favourite walking routes, and he settles at her favourite picnic area too. Back at home, Róise is upset when the dog makes himself comfy on Frank’s favourite chair.
Gradually, through further coincidence, and the recognition of all-too-familiar habits, Róise comes to the conclusion that this dog that appeared out of nowhere is her late husband reincarnated.
Understandably, those close to Róise are sceptical about the situation. Her son, Alan (Cillian O’Gairbhi), a big city doctor, worries for his mother’s sanity.
In one amusing sequence, Róise chases after the bolting dog in her nightgown – the village is scandalised and so is Alan. When Róise catches up to the stray he’s led her right to where Frank is buried. This is proof-positive for Róise of her husband’s rebirth. Alan is less unconvinced but has little choice but to humour his mother for the moment.
In scenes like this one, and others showing Frank and Róise interacting as dog and wife, the impression is that there’s a desire on Róise’s part to live the life she once knew again. For the viewer, there has to be a willingness too, a willingness to accept the premise of Róise & Frank and to go along with the action.
There’s humour in the absurdity of the situation, and that keeps up through the run of the film, but the more lasting appeal is in its big-heartedness. Yes, it’s silly, but the feelings are nothing but sincere.
Writing-and-directing duo Rachael Moriarty and Peter Murphy pitch the tone of their film just right. In doing so they follow the Golden Rule of Dog Movies: Frank the Dog does not talk. Think of any great dog movie, the dogs don’t talk.
Benji won hearts and minds all over the world with no peanut butter assisted lip flaps. The same goes for Marley, Beethoven, countless Lassies and so on. That first Air Bud movie, where the golden retriever plays basketball? Perfectly reasonable. But once the sequels introduced an inner monologue for the dog, the magic was gone.
The truth is that people impress feelings onto dogs all the time. The same is true on film. We don’t need to hear what they’re feeling because we know already.
Moriarty and Murphy seem clearly to know about the Golden Rule. They approach filming Frank as they would a human actor. The credibility of the relationship between Róise and her transmogrified husband is made all the more believable through framing and composition choices.
Frank waits by Róise’s side and watches her with adoring eyes, but we rarely see point-of-view shots of Frank looking up at Róise – the eye-lines are kept on the same level. Apart from the hair and the floppy ears there are many scenes where Frank could just as easily be a very thoughtful, dewy-eyed, human actor.
There’s one scene in which Róise, fresh from the bath, gives Frank a suggestive wink before hurrying him away. This cheeky playfulness again shows us the intertwining of humour and heart that makes for such a successful and charming film.
Bríd Ní Neachtain is particularly good at selling these interactions. She looks at Frank in dog form the same way she looked at those hurling final recordings: with love and longing.
The warm and gentle tone of Róise and Frank is a world away from Moriarty and Murphy’s last feature, the gritty thriller Traders, but some of the action and impact of that earlier film can be seen here.
In his former, human life, Frank was obsessed with hurling and helped with the local school team. Now, as a dog, he helps to train the youngster bouncing balls against Róise’s house. What’s more, Frank serves as something of a mascot-cum-coach for the local school.
This hurling subplot features some genuinely exciting and excellently shot matches. The B-plot is sweet and as heartfelt as the other relationships in the film. It also adds some tension as we wonder if Frank can make the finals after a run-in with the dog warden.
Róise & Frank is, as strange as it sounds, a fun exploration of the various stages of grief. Frank comes into Róise’s life when she needs him most. The film ends with Róise in a much better place.
As the credits roll, it’s likely that you’ll be in a better place too, just as I was, smiling and contented in the company of this winsome, tail-wagging, wonder of a movie.
Róise and Frank is in cinemas from Friday 16 September.