New Zealand is now well and truly on the ‘film’ map. Doubling as Tolkien’s Middle Earth and soon CS Lewis’ Narnia, it’s becoming a favourite for big budget films.
Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the New Zealand dollar is In My Father’s Den. Low budget, it’s a co-production with the UK’s Film Council based on Maurice Gee’s 1972 book of the same title.
The story begins when war journalist Paul Prior (Matthew MacFadyen, Spooks) returns home – having run away aged 17 (the character’s lengthy exodus being blamed as the reason for his British accent) – for his father’s funeral. Despite wanting to leave ASAP, Paul is guilted by his estranged brother Andrew (Colin Moy, Riverworld) into staying longer.
Like any good homecoming, Paul runs into his past, most importantly his father’s den – a room filled with books, atlases and memories, his ex-girlfriend Jackie (Jodie Rimmer, Snakeskin) and several skeletons – the reasons behind his leaving in the first place.
Celia (Emily Barclay) – Jackie’s 16-year-old daughter – is the only good thing to feature in Paul’s return. Recognising each other’s kindred spirit, with similar yearnings for writing and escape, the two become friends. But then Celia goes missing, with Paul as the key suspect.
This film is very good. Newcomer writer/director Brad McGann lets the haunting mystery slowly unwind through the use of flashbacks, little by little hinting at the sad denouement. There is also a feeling of dirt and perversity beneath the surface (such as in another Antipodean film Heavenly Creatures), juxtaposing the mute, bland New Zealand setting.
However, it’s the characters that really make this film. They are so real and three-dimensional (a nice change from many movies nowadays), you could pass them in the street. Take Paul, for example. He’s cold, has a disturbing wish to asphyxiate during sex and yet tries to be kind-hearted to children (especially his nephew). Indeed, for anyone unsure of Matthew MacFadyen’s acting ability or dubious of his upcoming role as Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, In My Father’s Den will extinguish any worries. He carries off the part flawlessly.
Other performances are just as good, particularly Emily Barclay who brings a sparky but childish curiosity to Celia, while Miranda Otto (Lord of the Rings‘ Eowyn) proves why she’s being cast in highly paid blockbuster films (such as War of the Worlds and What Lies Beneath) in her small but pivotal role as Paul’s sister-in-law, Penny.
In My Father’s Den is a breath of fresh air. Character driven, with a clever intertwining story, those patient enough to wait for the final conclusive 10 minutes will not be disappointed.