In My Father's Den Review

Paul Prior (Matthew Macfadyen) left his family home in a remote part of New Zealand’s South Island years ago, to become an internationally-acclaimed war photojournalist. His father’s death causes him to return for the first time since. Staying on to help sort out the estate, Paul is forced to confront his past and the consequences of his actions, from his resentful brother Andrew (Colin Moy) and his religious wife Penny (Miranda Otto) to the suspicious locals. He also meets Celia (Emily Barclay), the daughter of his first girlfriend Jackie (Jodie Rimmer). Celia yearns for a world outside this small place, and has ambitions to be a writer, which Paul encourages. Paul suspects that Celia is in fact his own daughter, born eight months or so after he left.

At first, In My Father’s Den is a brooding character study. Then, around the forty-five minute mark Celia disappears. Although there is nothing sexual about his friendship with Celia, many people (including Jackie) find it inappropriate, and so he becomes the prime suspect.

Based on a novel by Maurice Gee, In My Father’s Den tells its story in a complex way, with flashbacks to the teenaged Paul and Jackie’s love affair. Then, with Celia’s disappearance, the film follows two timelines, the investigations interspersed with scenes depicting the growing friendship between the adult man and the teenage girl. This unchronological structure does demand close attention from the audience, and doesn’t always avoid confusion, but is on the whole well handled by Brad McGann and his cast. He conjures up a strong, bleak sense of mood and pace, and although Paul isn’t always a likeable character we do stay on his side. McGann also makes strong use of music, notably several selections from Patti Smith’s Horses. Unfortunately he loses control of the story in the latter stages: as revelations unfold and skeletons tumble out of closets, the film becomes a New Zealand gothic melodrama and the ending is not as moving as it should be. The film invites comparisons with Lantana, which also used a mystery as the plot motor for a character study: that’s a pretty daunting comparison, but although the film isn’t on a level with Ray Lawrence’s film, it certainly doesn’t disgrace it. The final scene, which may be imaginary, is effective.

However, the performances are strong, with Matthew Macfadyen (of the BBC’s Spooks and soon to be Mr Darcy in the new version of Pride and Prejudice) giving his role just the right touch of world-weary cynicism. Emily Barclay, actually seventeen at the time, is impressive as Celia. Miranda Otto’s screentime is limited for her second billing, though her character is more prominent towards the end of the film. Stuart Dryburgh’s camerawork adds considerably to the film’s slow-burning mood.

In My Father’s Den ultimately doesn’t quite work, but it contains sufficient good things to make it worth seeing.

Icon’s DVD (which is encoded for Region 2 as well as Region 4) is transferred to DVD in a ratio of 2.40:1. The anamorphic transfer is first-rate. Dryburgh’s camerawork is dominated by blues and earth tones, with generally muted colours. There’s some light grain, but nothing too distracting, and the picture is generally sharp with good shadow detail.

The soundtrack is well detailed and immersive, with Simon Boswell’s score, the other music and ambient sounds well balanced. I had no problems with making out the dialogue, with Macfadyen’s English accent deliberately standing out amongst the Kiwi accents of the rest of the cast. This is just as well, as there are no subtitles on this disc – as regrettable an omission as it always is. There’s a 2.0 (Dolby Surround) option on the disc, but the 5.1 is the mix of choice.

This is the uncut version of In My Father’s Den, passed in Australia as suitable for accompanied children under fifteen. A sex scene involving consensual asphyxiation was cut from the UK cinema release to lower the certificate from an 18 to a 15. (The BBFC seems to be sensitive about this subject matter. They removed one of the deleted scenes on the DVD of Garage Days for the similar reason.) McGann defends this scene in the commentary, which he shares with producer Trevor Haysom and Emily Barclay. This is a consistently interesting track, with few pauses and solid contributions from all three.

Also on the disc is McGann’s short film from 1997, Possum. Shot in grainy sepia, it touches on several of the themes of the feature, though is more overtly gothic. It also has many crew members in common, the exception being the DP, Leon Narboy (who later went on to shoot Whale Rider). The short begins with two text pages, the second being a list of awards it won. The film itself runs 15:34 and is presented in non-anamorphic 1.66:1 with a surround-encoded Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack.

There are four snippets of behind-the-scenes footage, each followed by the final version of the scene in question. They are presented in 4:3 with the film clips letterboxed into 2.35:1. They can be selected individually or via a “play all” function. They are “The River” (1:29), “Tea Lights” (2:15), “The Train” (1:22) and “The Den” (1:53). The extras are completed by the trailer (1:59, anamorphic 1.78:1).

In My Father’s Den is a generally well-achieved first feature that if anything doesn’t quite come off. That’s a failure of reach exceeding grasp, which I’d rather see than someone aiming low and missing any day. Icon’s DVD presents the film very well.

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