December Boys Review
Misty (Max Cullen) narrates this story, taking us back to the 1960s, where he (Lee Cormie) grew up in an orphanage. Misty, Maps (Daniel Radcliffe), Spark (Christian Byers) and Spit (James Fraser) were known as the “December Boys” because of their shared month of birth. While other boys are adopted by families, they stay in the orphanage, until the Reverend Mother gives them a treat for their birthdays: a holiday by the sea (this is the Southern Hemisphere, so it’s high summer in December). The hosts for the four boys are an elderly couple, Bandy McAnsh (Jack Thompson) and his wife (Kris McQuade). But during their stay the boys meet some colourful locals – circus daredevil bike rider Fearless (Sullivan Stapleton) and his French wife Teresa (Victoria Hill), fisherman Shellback (Ralph Cotterill) who spends his days in pursuit of the elusive big fish, and Lucy (Teresa Palmer), who takes a shine to Maps, the oldest of the boys.
If the story harks back to childhood, with plenty of nostalgic signifiers such as contemporary pop music on the soundtrack, then the film recalls the cinema of thirty years ago. For all its critical and commercial successes, Australian cinema of the 70s soon developed its own stereotype, which filmmakers were keen to break away from. The period or historical setting (signalled not always accurately by songs of the soundtrack), lush photography, the episodic storyline with plenty of opportunities for character acting, the impeccable good taste… There are some very good Australian films which meet that description, and there are some bland and dull ones which mistake worthiness for passion and interest. December Boys is pleasant enough for the hour and three quarters it takes, but it’s just a little bit dull and undramatic. Key conflicts come and go – will one of the boys be adopted by childless couple Fearless and Teresa? Will Shellback finally catch his fish? Why does Mrs McAnsh look unwell? Will Maps and Lucy get it on? But unfortunately nothing builds and the ending, with three of the four reunited to scatter the ashes of the fourth, lacks any sort of resonance. Misty’s visions of nuns and of the Virgin Mary are simply ludicrous. While no doubt meaningful to the characters involved, the film fails to convey any of this to the audience. As a result December Boys lacks a compelling reason for its own existence.
There are compensations. Director Rod Hardy began in television and has remained there for most of his career. In the cinema he’s best known for his 1979 vampire film Thirst and December Boys appears to be only his second big-screen feature since then. The film was touted as Daniel Radcliffe’s first major screen role outside the Harry Potter series. He’s certainly competent – though not really attempting an Aussie accent - but like the film rather lacking in that vital spark of inspiration. It’s the older actors’ turns which are more entertaining, especially from Jack Thompson and Kris McQuade, both of whom enlivened their fair share of 70s Australian films.
December Boys is released by Warners as one dual-layered disc encoded for Region 1 only. The DVD is transferred in the original ratio of 2.40:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. For a brand new film you would expect an excellent transfer and you get one. The opening scenes at the orphanage are deliberately desaturated, but the film bursts into vibrant colours as soon as it moves to the seaside. Grain is light and pleasantly filmlike for the most part, though some shots show signs of digital manipulation due to the film itself. Skintones are lifelike and blacks strong.
The soundtrack is in Dolby Digital 5.1 in the original English language or a Spanish dub. This announces itself while the opening distributor logos are onscreen with insect noises coming out of left and right and surrounds in turn. After that, there’s not a great deal of ostentatious surround use, except for the various songs, which typically begin front and centre before moving to the rears.
The DVD begins with trailers for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (naturally), Hairspray, P.S. I Love You, Starter for 10 and In the Valley of Elah. These can be skipped. Apart from these, the only extra is a set of six additional scenes. These play one after the other, totalling 7:31, in 2.40:1 non-anamorphic. They are separately chaptered but not indexed. There is no commentary from anyone as to why these were removed, though it’s not hard to guess why. Subtitles are available for these as well as for the main feature.
The Australian DVD of December Boys is not due until February 2008, and as I write this (December 2007) it’s not known if that version from Roadshow will have many more extras. This Warners edition presents the film well enough, but is virtually barebones.