Romulus. My Father Review
Romulus, My Father is based on philosopher and writer Raimond Gaita's memoir of his childhood. In Australia in 1960, nine-year-old Rai (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is the son of immigrants: Romanian father Romulus, also known as Jack (Eric Bana), and German mother Christina (Franka Potente). Romulus struggles to keep his family together, though Christina drifts away into an affair with Mitru (Russell Dyskstra).
Richard Roxburgh is best known as an actor, though he has directed on stage. However, Romulus, My Father is his film directorial debut. Although I do have some reservations, overall it's an impressive piece of work and I look forward to what Roxburgh does next. Working from a screenplay by Nick Drake, the narrative is certainly character-led, but it holds the attention throughout. As most of the action is seen from the viewpoint of young Rai, Roxburgh and Drake have the confidence to let the audience do a little work for themselves, and some key events are partly left for us to infer motivations. Christina's slide into depression is conveyed with considerable subtlety, so much so that they risk losing the audience's sympathy.
The actors do a lot of work too, of course: Franka Potente gives a very natural, sympathetic performance, conveying her character's volatility and allure with ease – it's by far the best work I've seen from her. Similarly, Marton Csokas (as Romulus's close friend Hora) and Russell Dykstra, as the conflicted Mitru, give fully-rounded performances. Add to that one of the best child actors I've seen in a long time: young Kodi Smit-McPhee, who does wonders with a complex and demanding role.
At the centre of the film is Romulus, Rai's deeply moral father. It would be easy to see the character as weak, and many people would. But, as Rai sees him, he has a deep compassion and ability to forgive, even his wife's infidelity. Eric Bana has some fine moments – including a haunting opening sequence – which gets over the fact that he is hardly ideal casting as a Romanian, and that his accent sometimes slips.
Many first-time directors are paired with an experienced cinematographer, and this film is no exception. Geoffrey Simpson does some beautiful work, Roxburgh's direction is confident and well-paced – note the recurring motif of hurrying feet. However, the film does slow a little in its final reel, a couple of moments of slow motion seem extraneous, and Roxburgh ends a few scenes oddly abruptly.
Romulus, My Father won Best Film at the 2007 Australian Film Institute Awards. Eric Bana won for Best Actor and Marton Csola for Best Supporting. Kodi Smit-McpHee won a special Young Actor's' Award. Given that, and the well=known names in the cast and behind the camera, it's quite baffling that the film has never had a British release of any kind.
Romulus, My Father is released on DVD by Madman Entertainment as a two-disc set, encoded for Region 4 only.
The DVD transfer is excellent, as it should be for a brand-new film: sharp, colourful and film-like, with fine shadow detail and solid blacks. The transfer is anamorphically enhanced, with thin black bars giving a ratio of approximately 1.80:1, the intended one being 1.85:1.
The main soundtrack is Dolby Digital 5.1. For a generally quiet and low-key film, Romulus has an intricate sound design, with the surrounds in particular used for ambience and directional sound, even some directional dialogue in places. There is a 2.0 alternative track and subtitles (yellow) are available for the hard of hearing.
Roxburgh provides an audio commentary, which is an easy and informative listen, though inevitably duplicating some material from the other extras. He has a lot of praise for his actors and crew members, although he does mention a few shots that don't quite work and scenes (no less than sixty of them) that had to be cut from the script before shooting started, due to the constraints of the limited budget (especially for a period film) and short schedule.
Disc Two begins with Richard Roxburgh's video diaries. Each one of them, between one and two minutes long, was shot at the end of a particular day's shooting as Roxburgh describes how the day went, whether well or badly. Although there is a “Play All” option, each item begins with a title card and a closing card giving the film's website and MySpace page, where these presumably first appeared.
Popcorn Taxi is a regular event in Sydney and Melbourne, occasionally other Australian cities, which pairs a screening of a new film with a Q&A with one or more of its makers. Several of these have turned up on Australian DVDs. This one (running 31:35) features Roxburgh, producer and second-unit director Robert Connolly (director of The Bank) and Geoffrey Simpson. The interviewer is Oscar Hillerstrom, who gets in a jab about Roxburgh's performance in Van Helsing early on.
Another Q&A took place at the Sydney Writers' Festival (21:15)> Roxburgh is joined by Raimond Gaita, Robert Connolly, Nick Drake and actors Eric Bana and Marton Csokas, and the results are well worth listening to.
Raimond Gaita gets a solo spot (29:22), in which he discusses his life, his motivations for writing the book and the ethical and philosophical questions raised by it. A final interview is with Roxburgh again (26:46), conducted by Margaret Pomeranz, from the long-running At the Movies show. Inevitably there is some repetition from the commentary and Roxburgh's other interviews on this disc.
In addition this disc has the film's theatrical trailer (1:57), which compared to the feature is soft and somewhat washed-out. Finally, “Madman Propaganda” features trailers for other DVD releases by them (once you get past the Aussie version of the “You Wouldn't Steal a Car” anti-piracy ad). These are Look Both Ways, Ten Canoes, Three Dollars and Kenny.
Also on the disc, in PDF format, is the Australian Teachers of Media Study Guide.
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