Firstly, I am aghast at those who are not happy with films that produce an emotional reaction on the part of the movie-goer, as if to make an emotive piece of work is somehow limp or uncool or a cop-out. The best films are those that mirror humanity, whether that be in terms of violence committed by Man/Woman to Man/Woman, love, hate, envy, ambition and the others which make up the full range. Let us be clear: any film that deals with pain and heartbreak is not one that is choosing a soft option. How many of us do not feel pain and heartbreak? None of us presumably, so to state the obvious, this is valid ground for the modern writer and director to tread.
The difficulty for the film-maker in 2005 is finding the money to make a piece of work that is not compromised by commerce: to use music, action and dialogue in a clichéd manner to satisfy the warped idea of producers that the masses will only pay money for films that use such devices. Auerbach manages in this movie to almost completely avoid these pitfalls. There is no sex, no bulging orchestral interventions, no truly happy ending. I would however have removed the awful song by the awful Damien Rice and taken the dopey look off Emily Mortimer's face when she realised that the stranger was a decent guy as well as a bit of alright, but these in the end are trifles; for the director makes us emote without manipulation and without using plot devices which strain credulity (I don't care what any of you think).
Critics here are being too cynical. The searing melancholy of Bergman might satisfy them I suspect, but they seem to be missing the fact that there is precious little humour in this movie. The Mortimer character here is almost humourless enough for a Bergman movie, as is the Stranger for the most part, so the criticism of mawkishness isn't remotely credible. The mother is also a fairly grim presence. Auerbach could easily have tweaked her film to emphasise or exaggerate the sense of internal pain of all three leads, but she happily and smartly eschews still shots of these nomadic characters wallowing in their isolation. Instead, their internal lives are displayed with a greater sense of reality. There is a humdrum quality to their lives which is as it should be if a director is shooting for naturalism. Contrast this with Leigh's Vera Drake where for more verisimilitude, there should have been more dirt, more roughness to the people and their homes. True the working class often prided themselves on cleanliness, but in the terraced house in Tottehnam I encountered in the late-50s and early-60s you smell the lack of true cleanliness and see it too.
In terms of characterisation Auerbach also got things right. Far from The Stranger being too handsome, handsome people can be found anywhere, and he's a scruff! Furthermore, the idea that he is Mr Perfect is risible. He is emotionally stunted initially, callous and unfeeling in his first meeting with Mortimer, and for me - not that I know any seaman - is plausibly detached from regular land life. The criticism seems to be that is implausibly seduced by the admittedly dysfunctional family unit. I don't buy that. His inability to relate to the child when they meet for the first time is either perfect or too much, but he's anything like the Disneyland father- manqué some reviewers here are suggesting. Auerbach has him thawing out very slowly. The movie too slow? A slicker 95 minute version wouldn't have allowed this. If some viewers have a retarded attention span that's their lookout.
That the Stranger is won over is not feel-good nonsense, it's entirely believable and well executed. Why? Because the father instinct is in all men. He responds to this splendid child in a way that is merely human. Sure, some men would not have responded, so go on, be cynical, but then there's no film. And if Mortimer's search for the surrogate father seems far-fetched, most of us can tell you miseries that the truth of everyday life is often far stranger than reality.
The denouement is magnificent. I'm rubbish at seeing twists coming in movies, and I saw this one accidentally. My reaction (look away if you've not seen the film) when the child first sees the "Father" was, 'he knows he's not his real Dad.' The direction is brilliant, the acting brilliant or Aerbach got lucky. In the end it doesn't matter; this key scene is superbly subtle however achieved.
There are indeed moving moments. The gift of the sea horse was profoundly affecting. The boy's talking to the Stranger to show how he felt about the crucial surrogate fathering that he's just received could for me also have been very, very upsetting. The direction of Frankie at this moment is fantastic: to keep his reaction under control is how we are: in our lives few lose control, weep hysterically or throw the punch. Frankie doesn't here, so tears us apart.
Finally, the real father: moral ambiguity? Life has many of these moments. I don't agree with the point anyway. Mortimer's reaction to the violent father is beautifully poised between the hard-heartiness part of her wants to show him and the dignified humanity the other part of her wants to reveal.
Such precious, subtle moments make for a tremendous piece of film-making. Fortunately most reviewers here liked the movie. If that weren't the case, we might as well all give up and start praying for the human race.