‘Uncle Frank’ review: Paul Bettany’s great American road trip

The thinking man's Marvel star is on career-best form in an emotional coming-out drama

Paul Bettany (A Beautiful Mind, Avengers: Infinity War) puts in a career-best turn as the titular Uncle Frank in this handsome and beautifully-acted drama. Written and directed by Alan Ball – whose early screenwriting credits include the Oscar-winning American Beauty and popular HBO series True Blood – it tells the story of a middle-aged, closeted gay man in 1970s America, who tries to make sense of his life after a bereavement.

Frank is a mild-mannered academic living in New York, miles away from his deeply conservative family in South Carolina. But he is also the favourite uncle of Beth (It‘s Sophia Lillis), a bright and hopeful teenager who dreams of escaping her small, rural hometown for the big city. On one of his rare visits back home, Frank suggests that she continues her studies at NYU where he is a respected scholar.

Uncle Frank
Paul Bettany stars as a closeted gay man, whose lover is played by Peter Macdissi. Credit: Amazon Prime Video

When they arrive at NYC, Beth realises that one of the reasons her uncle has been estranged from the family for so long is because he’s gay. Initially reluctant to come out to her, Frank hides his sexuality from Beth – as well as his longtime relationship with Walid (True Blood’s Peter Macdissi), himself exiled from a strict Muslim family. When his disapproving father (Stephen Root) suddenly dies, Frank embarks on an eventful journey home to North Carolina with Beth, a road trip further complicated when Wally decides to accompany them, hoping to finally meet the family.

Bettany hasn’t been this good in at least a decade, presenting Frank as a complex and deeply damaged individual. Lillis, too, is fantastic as Beth, the young upstart who slowly works through her uncle’s lies. Macdissi – director Ball’s real-life partner – contributes a charming and at times hilarious performance as the hugely likeable Wally.

Uncle Frank
Alongside Paul Bettany in new film ‘Uncle Frank’. Credit: Amazon Prime Video

Elsewhere, Ball’s ability to combine humour and drama makes for interesting viewing. His 1970s backdrop is expertly detailed, and he beautifully reflects the love between Frank and Wally, two men who have made huge sacrifices just to enjoy a semi-normal existence with one another. Only slightly blighted by a contrived and too schmaltzy third act, Uncle Frank deserves an Oscar nomination or two. Charming, funny and heartbreaking, it is an evocative slice of retro Americana and a highly entertaining road movie.

Details

  • Director: Alan Ball
  • Starring: Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi
  • Release date: November 25 (Amazon Prime Video)
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