Dir: Brad McGann. NZ-UK.2004. 125mins
Last year's Sydney FilmFestival opened to an embarrassing effort, the feeble Australian comedy TheHonourable Wally Norman. This year, in contrast, a packed house was grippedby New Zealand director-writer Brad McGann's assured debut feature In MyFather's Den, a hard-to-categorise mix of family conflict, coming of agedrama and whodunit.
International criticalreaction is likely to be in the same arthouse league as for two recent standoutNew Zealand features, Whale Rider and the strangely underexposed PerfectStrangers. The former took over $20m-plusin the US alone, benefiting from cross-over into a broader family marketthat will not be open to McGann's adult, ultimately disturbing feature.
Expertly updated and expandedby McGann from New Zealand writer Maurice Gee's 1972 novel, the narrative isprimarily concerned with the edgy relationship between schoolgirl Celia(Barclay) and her new English teacher Paul (Macfadyen), a burnt-out Bosnian Warphotojournalist returning from 17 years based in Europe.
Paul is the moody, impulsivebrother who left home; Andrew (Moy) the intensely inarticulate brother whogrudgingly stayed to run the family orchards and ostrich farm and cope withtheir unpredictable father.
His father's death has drawnPaul back to this isolated rural cornerof southern New Zealand, stirring a thick family stew of secrets and lies whichultimately includes Celia's sudden disappearance.
McGann's earlier short films- including the award-winning Possum (1997),a festivals favourite - clearly demonstrated his talent. Here he effortlesslymoves between several time frames (marked by the winter bareness and springblossoming of fruit trees) and plays confidently with rearranged continuity andfalse memories.
It's finely done, ifrequiring audiences to concentrate hard for a lengthy two-plus hours, and movesunexpectedly into a classic whodunit third act with multiple suspects and asurprise 'culprit'. Losing 10 to 15 minutes off the set-up would not go amiss.
British heartthrob Macfadyen(from BBC TV's Spooks, as well as Darcy in Working Title's upcoming PrideAnd Prejudice) is attractively dishevelled and unshaved, making the most ofmany brooding close-ups.
But it is Barclay, makingher feature debut, who takes top honours as the latest in a brilliant line ofyoung unknown New Zealand-based female performers (Anna Paquin in The Piano,Keisha Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider) discovered by casting agent DianaRowan.
Sly, uncertain andpassionate, she demands attention with her stunning portrayal of a woman-childstruggling to understand and articulate her emotions. However, her thick NewZealand accent may challenge some - it sometimes proved difficult for Sydneyears - especially among overseas English-speaking audiences where the film isunlikely to be subtitled.
The rest of the supportingcast are good, although The Lord Of The Rings Miranda Otto has nothingmuch to do besides looking lost and neglected.
Cinematographer StuartDryburgh (Beautiful Country, The Piano) plays a major part in thefilm's success, his doomy presentation of the dead father's hidden den matchinghis rain-sodden exteriors for mood and power.
The minimalist theme musicis repeated too frequently, but well chosen soundtrack album tracks, includingtwo classics from Patti Smith, add strength and edge.
Prod cos: T.H.E. Film Ltd, Little Bird, UK Film Council, NewZealand Film Commission,
Visionview, NZ On Air
Aust/NZ dist: Icon Film Dist
UK dist: Optimum
Int'l sales: New Zealand FilmCommission (Jap, Australasia, SE Asia),
Element X (rest of the world)
Exec prods: Sue Bruce Smith,James Mitchell, Paul Trijbits, Jim Reeve, Steve Robbins
Prod: Trevor Haysom, Dixie Linder
Scr: McGann, from the novel byMaurice Gee
Cine: Stuart Dryburgh
Prod des: Jennifer Kernke
Ed: Chris Plummer
Music: Simon Boswell
Main cast: Matthew Macfadyen,Emily Barclay, Colin Moy, Miranda Otto, Jodie Rimmer