Top-flight star turns by Jack Thompson and rising star Russell Crowe, who play a loving father and his gay son, elevate this too-faithful adaptation of David Stevens’ stage play. Audiences, straight and gay, should respond to the honesty and warmth of the father-son relationship depicted here, bringing the modestly scaled production positive word of mouth.
A basic decision to retain the stage device of having the two main characters react to the audience, and, at times, talk directly into the camera, will be accepted by some and seen by others as a distracting holdover from the theater, which should have been junked in the screen adaptation. Device is particularly questionable toward the end, when the father is immobilized by a stroke, unable to move or talk, yet still moves out of character to relay his thoughts to the audience.
This reservation aside, the piece works because of the heartfelt script, in-depth characters and classy performers. Thompson is Harry Mitchell, a widower who shares a small inner-Sydney house with his son, Jeff (Crowe). Jeff has never made a secret of the fact that he’s gay, and the affable Harry is unquestioningly tolerant and accepting of his son’s sexual orientation. Almost too accepting: When Jeff comes home one night with a man (John Polson) he’s met in a gay bar, Harry joins them for a drink and a chat and insists on making the newcomer feel at home — until he unwittingly drives the astonished lover away.
Jeff is also unwittingly responsible for disrupting his father’s new relationship. Harry has met, via a dating service, and fallen in love with Joyce (Deborah Kennedy), a divorced woman still hurt by the rejection of her husband years before. Things go well until Joyce learns about Jeff, which is something she can’t handle. Her abrupt departure triggers Harry’s stroke, after which his devoted son gives up everything to care for his father.
Thompson gives one of his best and most controlled performances as the kindly Harry, while Crowe continues to display his maturing talent; his sensitive Jeff is quite a contrast with the monstrous character he played in “Romper Stomper.”
Supporting roles are solidly limned, especially Polson as the diffident would-be lover who has to put up with the hostility of his parents.
American Kevin Dowling directed the award-winning New York production of “The Sum of Us,” and his co-director, Geoff Burton, is wielding the megaphone for the first time after a distinguished career as cinematographer (most recently on “Sirens”). The theatrical treatment suggests that Dowling dominated the partnership; Burton’s cinematography is very professional but unobtrusive.
Given the high level of emotion in the subject matter, it’s notable that the most moving scenes in “The Sum of Us” are black-and-white flashbacks in which Jeff recalls that his beloved grandmother (Mitch Mathews) lived for years in a lesbian relationship after her husband died, but was cruelly separated from her companion (Julie Herbert) when it was decided the couple were too frail to care for themselves.
Southern Star should have a winner in Australia with this one, and international sales are also indicated, especially when Crowe’s career takes off with a couple of upcoming roles in mainstream U.S. pictures.