In My Father’s Den (2004) (H)

Based on ‘In My Father’s Den’ by Maurice Gee
Written and Directed by Brad McGann

It was Ma who first personally encouraged me to go and see In My Father’s Den. I remember her saying that she thought it was as close to a perfect film as she had seen – in strength of narrative, structure, acting, and directing skill. After several further positive testimonies, I did go and see it, and was still surprised by how good it was. Not perfect, because I found a few things to be distractingly out of place (which I’ll talk about later), but up there with the top few films made in this country.

It’s the story of a war photographer, Paul Prior, who returns home to a small town in central Otago for his father’s funeral. He intends to leave immediately, but is persuaded to stay and teach teenagers English – or, rather, educate them of a world that exists beyond the nearby hills. He strikes up a friendship with a girl in the class, Celia, with whom he has a connection that is gradually revealed. Then Celia goes missing, and the story takes a dark turn – you’ll have to see it to find out the rest.

Sounds somewhat formulaic, but upon this surprisingly complex plot is strung a highly effective film that expertly creates its own world, a time and place we can believe in without having to suspend disbelief. It’s not set in some obviously fake place where teenagers talk like 35 year-olds; among many nice writing touches, people use ‘fuck’ like people in real life (a lot, but not to sound bad-ass), and teenagers are narrow-minded and clear-thinking (if not always smart). The structure of the film is important too. Until the 50-minute mark, it is straightforward and mostly linear, but after that it regularly mixes in flashbacks, which are so often poorly used but are utilised to great effect here. It is a much better film from then on, more engaging, more complex. All of this is down to McGann’s abilities as a writer: in updating Gee’s novel, he has made additions and improvements to make it work better on film, rather than just trying to translate it.

Family and ‘the ties that bind’ play a big part in his screenplay. Paul’s relationship with his brother, both in the present and the past, is extremely well fleshed out: it steadily reveals itself without you having to think particularly hard, and is of course crucial to the film’s outcome. That is characteristic of the film, though, and I suppose is the point that I’ve been looking for – plot elements are slowly and carefully revealed at certain points, never heavy-handedly, and that is what makes it all work so well. You get totally involved in the story, then for days afterwards think about the themes raised – personal isolation, small town mentality, the hurt that can lie buried in families for years. Any screenplay that offers an engaging story and rewards thinking about it afterwards must be admired.

Thankfully, McGann isn’t just a talented writer; he shows some pretty well-honed directing chops as well. This is his first feature film after much work in TV and shorts, and this is clearly the work of someone who knows and understands film technique, not someone just finding their feet. Shots often show the moments before and after someone speaks, lingering on their face, suggesting much but revealing little – it’s fascinating stuff. There’s the odd unnecessary crane shot, or purely expository scene (particularly in the first third), but overall it’s a very assured debut. Particularly his use of contemporary music – the original score is plinky-plonky rubbish that derails a few moments, but whenever Patti Smith or Kiri te Kanawa take over, it adds so very much to the action. To all you young aspiring Tarantinos in America, this is how music should be used – not to compensate for the lack of quality of a scene, but to build upon it, emphasise it.

McGann is magnificently served by his actors. The supporting roles are filled by good NZ actors and reasonably well played, but In My Father’s Den relies on its two leads, and they are magnificent. Emily Barclay is remarkable as Celia, showing impressive range in a difficult role that could easily have become annoying; it’s the signal of a major new talent in NZ acting. As Paul, however, Matthew Macfadyen gets inside the character and gives one of the defining performances of the new millennium. He stutters, he blinks, all these things that are totally against acting tradition, and he uses them to hint at the hurt Paul feels inside. Never for a moment does it feel forced. If he can recover from the mis-step that was being cast as Mr. Darcy, he could go on to an illustrious career – but it’s hard to see him ever doing better work than what he does here.

I was moved to write this review, after weeks of umming and aahing, when I read the news that Brad McGann has been diagnosed with cancer. Read this at Lumière and go along to the screening if you have time and can afford it. It would be tremendously sad if we lost such a talented artist so young.

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