My Father's Den
In My Father's Den is a richly surprising feature debut from New Zealand director-writer Brad McGann, who did part of his training as a filmmaker in Melbourne in the mid-1990s. Based on a novel by Maurice Gee, this New Zealand-Britain co-production starts on familiar dramatic terrain – a difficult family reunion in a small, sleepy town prompted by a father's death – but gradually moves into darker, more secretive areas.
Paul (Matthew Macfadyen) returns home to New Zealand as a celebrated war photographer with a thoroughly British accent (which the film apologises for a few times too often). He heads straight for his father's den, a warm, private room full of books, records, maps. This is where, as a child, Paul bonded with his Dad, and it is now where a local teenager, Celia (Emily Barclay), finds a dream of a better future in a wider world.
The web that this film spins slowly becomes wider and more complex. There is Paul's resentful, strait-laced brother, Andrew (Colin Moy) and his highly religious wife, Penny (Miranda Otto). There is Paul's old girlfriend, Jackie (Jodie Rimmer), who happens to be Celia's mother. In judiciously used flashbacks, we receive glimpses of the recently departed father, Jeff (Matthew Chamberlain) and his highly strung wife, Iris (Vanessa Riddell), as well as the fall-out that occurred when Paul, as a young man, left home.
In a haunted, uncanny way, this murky past constantly invades the present, reproducing itself in what people say and how they behave. But the strength of the film is its refusal to be merely morbid and backward looking. Around the figure of Celia – superbly and heartbreakingly brought alive by Barclay – we come to discover both the thrill of a possible future and the danger of a chaotic, new, possibly perverse world in which the defining lines between parents and children, young and old, friends and lovers, are becoming increasingly blurred. In a particularly inspired touch, Patti Smith's classic album Horses is used to evoke this heady, reckless utopianism of youth.
Because they are the two most notable films to emerge from the Australia-New Zealand region in 2004, In My Father's Den and Cate Shortland's Somersault are certain to be compared at length. Both films, moreover, are united in their exploration of the sexual confusion of a young woman. On most other counts, however, the films are very different.
In My Father's Den seems to me clearly the superior effort. Where Somersault is long on mood and short on narrative incident, In My Father's Den has a source novel to fall back on, with its solidly plotted structure of revelations and interrelations.
Intriguingly, the two films offer extremes of style that are prevalent among fledgling directors the world over at present. Shortland, inspired by the likes of Wong Kar-wai and Olivier Assayas, opts for non-stop lyricism. McGann takes a much more classical route. His model would appear to be Atom Egoyan (especially The Sweet Hereafter , of which there are many echoes here) or, further back, Joseph Losey. McGann concentrates on maintaining a controlled, even tone and a precise, unfolding structure.
Yet, just as I yearned for less dazzle and more discipline in Somersault, I found myself longing for even a single moment of total stylistic freedom, of cutting loose, in In My Father's Den. Young directors who embrace either anything-goes experimentation or a static, homogenous, overall strategy of style are ignoring the real lesson of the French Nouvelle Vague and, before it, Jean Renoir: that films can find their richness in the sudden clashing of moods from scene to scene, in the disequilibrium of control and chance. Let's hope that McGann is swiftly given the chance to develop and deepen his already impressive grasp of filmic storytelling.
Postscript: Brad McGann died tragically young of cancer in May 2007.
© Adrian Martin October 2004