In My Father's Den Review

A densely plotted family drama starring Matthew Macfadyen, it’s hard not to think of Stephen Poliakoff’s Perfect Strangers whilst watching In My Father’s Den. Both have a shared sense of deliberation, both offer up an easeful blend between past and present, and both know how to highlight the preciousness of a moment such is the meticulousness of their creation. Of course the by-product of this is that it becomes difficult to divulge any plot details beyond the first 15 minutes. To do so would be to destroy some of the magic and as such it’s best to attempt to convey the film’s properties without revealing its centre.

Macfadyen plays a celebrated war photographer who returns to his New Zealand hometown following the death of his father. (The combination of actor and setting demonstrating that this was primarily a co-production between the New Zealand Film Commission and the UK Film Council.) His mother having died whilst he was in his teens, this leaves his brother, an ostrich farmer, as the only other surviving family member. Macfadyen having left the roost at 17, his arrival expectedly rekindles the past, though it’s only once the story progresses and undergoes its various twists that we begin to realise just how complex his reasons for leaving were. Furthermore, there are other characters from the past, plus extended family members (including Miranda Otto’s reclusive sister-in-law who bears a remarkable resemblance to their mother), to enhance this complexity.

Being a small town drama as well as a family one, In My Father’s Den also has a seedy underbelly to reveal. At times it recalls one of Atom Egoyan’s late eighties/early nineties efforts - Family Viewing, The Adjustor - courtesy of its ever-present sexual undercurrents, hints towards voyeurism and a recurrent motif of shots being seen through lenses. Macfadyen’s nephew owns a camera; videotape and surveillance footage is briefly glimpsed; and then there’s the war photography itself, each piece a potential clue though writer-director Bruce McGann proves equally adept with red herrings.

Indeed, McGann has a fine handle on building the intrigue, though it’s also true that he gets help from elsewhere. Throughout the film we’re faced with subconscious memories of New Zealand cinema – a character being named Celia being particularly helpful on this count, though everything from Jack Be Nimble to Sam Pillsbury’s The Scarecrow also figures – and it only serves to enhance expectations of a gothic flavour. Moreover, McGann frames his film in the wider ’scope ratio thereby allowing himself to escape the potentially claustrophobic confines of the small town setting and hint at grander narrative concerns. Of course, he doesn’t necessarily have to take these routes, or take them to their logical conclusions, yet the fact that the possibilities are there keeps the audience continually on their toes.

And without revealing anything this is where In My Father’s Den’s success lies. It hooks us within the opening 15 minutes or so and keeps us there until its two hours are up. Macfadyen is partially responsible for this inasmuch as he possesses an almost wooden quality. This isn’t meant as a criticism, however; rather – as with Perfect Strangers in fact – it’s suggestive of a great deal going on beneath the inexacting surface. As with the film itself the potential is there for a multitude of revelations. More importantly, perhaps, the story itself is strong enough to complement this continual tease. Had it been told straight, as it were, then In My Father’s Den would still amount to a cracking piece of cinema. In these hands, however, it’s even better.

The Disc

As you’d expect from a company which had its hand in the film’s production, Optimum are releasing In My Father’s Den to DVD in fine condition. We get the film in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, anamorphically enhanced of course, and demonstrating the barest of flaws. Indeed, there are minor instances of edge enhancement, but otherwise the disc looks superb. The muted colour scheme is well handled, the print itself is completely free of damage, and there are no other technical difficulties to speak of. As for the soundtrack, here we find optional 2.0 and 5.1 mixes. In cinemas the film was shown with Dolby Surround EX accompaniment, and as such it’s the latter option which is the one to go for. This particular mix makes far better use of the soundtrack (the score by Simon Boswell as well as cuts by the likes of Mazzy Star and Patti Smith) whilst also handling the dialogue particularly well. Certainly, there are once again no flaws to speak of adding up to a fine overall presentation.

Note however that the film is arriving in cut form. In order to guarantee a 15 certificate a scene of consensual asphyxiation totalling almost two minutes. The Region 4 release as reviewed by Gary Couzens (click on the “other content” link below) comes fully uncut, though note that Gary has revealed more of the plot in his piece than I have above.

As for extras, this release loses McGann’s short film Possum as featured on the Region 4 release, but adds a wealth of interview material. Available so as to be accessed individually, these pieces speak to the majority of the principle cast plus McGann and various crew members. In most cases these amount solely to soundbites (the average length being about two minutes), though the discussions with McGann and Barclay and the one with Colin May are far lengthier and as such present a far greater depth. Disappointingly, however, these two longer pieces also have the poorer sound and picture qualities.

McGann also contributes a full length commentary which is as serious-minded and quiet as the film itself. Indeed, it may in fact be a little too quiet given the lengthy pauses and considered nature. By all means it’s worth a listen as McGann has many interesting things to say, though be warned. Rounding off the package we also have seven minutes of B-roll footage which takes us behind four scenes as well as the theatrical trailer.

As with the main feature, all extras are without optional subtitles, English or otherwise.

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