Forbidden pasts and unlived futures are intimately entwined and judiciously unraveled in Kiwi meller. Adapted from the celebrated 1972 local novel by Maurice Gee, this feature bow by writer-director Brad McGann has an atmospheric edge and tastefully restrained artiness. B.O. chances in English markets and Euro arthouses look good.
Forbidden pasts and unlived futures are intimately entwined and judiciously unraveled in Kiwi meller “In My Father’s Den.” Adapted from the celebrated 1972 local novel by Maurice Gee, this feature bow by writer-director Brad McGann is a visually secure drama with an atmospheric edge and tastefully restrained artiness. Box office chances in English markets and Euro arthouses look good, while antipodean biz seems a shoo-in when released later this year.
With a deliberately over-poetic voiceover from teenager Celia (Emily Barclay), film begins with images whose true significance is not revealed for several reels. Post-titles, pic settles down to introduce Paul Prior (Brit TV thesp Matthew MacFadyen, from “Spooks”), a celebrated war photojournalist who arrives after a long absence from his small hometown in New Zealand’s South Island just too late to attend his father’s funeral. Narrative haltingly presents Paul’s resentful, stay-at-home, ostrich-farming brother, Andrew (Colin Moy), Andrew’s neurotic wife, Penny (Australia’s Miranda Otto, in a small but pivotal role) and their son, Jonathan (Jimmy Keen).
While deciding whether to return to the northern hemisphere or fulfil family obligations of cleaning up after his father’s life, Paul finds himself drawn to his father’s secret den of maps, books, LP records and enigmatic artwork. First discovered by Paul as a teenager, the den was a secret haven in which his dad pursued intellectual interests and other clandestine pastimes, the sharing of which cemented a bond between Paul and his father in exclusion to brother Andrew and Paul’s long-dead mother.
This bond, and other parallel strands, are revealed via one of a series of flashbacks resembling what Quentin Tarantino once described as an “answers first, questions later” structure. Though “Reservoir Dogs” seems an unlikely reference point, “Den” is similarly informed and driven by initially confusing inserts. However, as writer-director McGann and his yarn win viewer confidence, the storytelling mode provides a self-renewing effect.
During one visit to his father’s sanctuary, the adult Paul comes across Celia, who’s been habitually trespassing there to expand her horizons.
Celia is the offspring of Jackie (Jodie Rimmer), Paul’s onetime g.f. with whom he shared a multitude of sins during adolescence and who still carries a torch for the world-weary photog. Despite several strong hints about her parentage, Celia takes her time drawing the obvious conclusion, and in the interim develops a crush on Paul. When Paul gets a job teaching at her school, the two are further pushed together.
As their relationship develops during pic’s midsection, subplots tentatively reveal the grim circumstances of the death of Paul’s mother. They also hint at yet another dark family secret which initially drove Paul into the wider world almost two decades ago.
Artfully played and depicted with acute sensitivity, the tender scenes between Paul and Celia are the heart of the picture. A humorous episode in which Celia interviews Paul, ostensibly for a school project, is particularly memorable. It’s a welcome relief from the movie’s generally bleak atmosphere, and helps to establish the rapport required to make the intense later scenes between the pair believable.
At the three-quarter mark, pic veers into thriller mode with an unexpected twist. Though this left turn is eventually resolved in a complex but plausible denouement, the narrative jolt unsettles the mood for about a reel. An avalanche of last-minute revelations requires considerable attentiveness by the viewer.
MacFadyen is distant yet strangely touching as the emotionally shut-down photojournalist who returns home with foreign eyes and a Brit accent. But pic is dominated by local teen actress Barclay, who excels in the role of Celia. In a part that not only carries the weight of her own character’s expectations but is also a manifestation of Paul’s nightmares, Barclay meets the dramatic demands with an impressive range. Supporting cast varies from the exemplary to the perfunctory, though Rimmer is notable as Paul’s former g.f.
At screening caught, Kiwi accents proved occasionally troublesome even for Australian ears, and may disconcert other English speakers. Some judicious trimming would also benefit the movie, including a brief, kinky sex scene that’s almost completely superfluous.
Quality lensing by Stuart Dryburgh wisely avoids too many picturesque landscapes. Soundtrack includes dollops of Patti Smith and Kiwi opera star Kiri Te Kanawa, while Simon Boswell’s original score is haunting without becoming intrusive. Other tech credits are on the money.
For the record, film was the first New Zealand production to open Australia’s Sydney Film Festival in its 51-year history.