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Published June 24th, 2005 | by Johan De Silva

In My Father’s Den Review

Classification: 15 Director: Brad McGann Rating: 4/5

At the age of 16, when his mother dies in an accident, Paul (MacFayden) leaves his small New Zealand town and doesn’t look back. Only the death of his father draws Paul, now a prize-winning war photographer, back into the bosom of his dysfunctional family, and his first meeting with his brother Andrew (Moy), Andrew’s introverted, ultra-religious wife (Otto) and son Jonathan (Keen) is full of tension. Paul is ready to get the hell out of Dodge, but Andrew persuades him to stay and sort out the details of their father’s will.

Needing an occupation, Paul is persuaded by his old teacher to come and give a talk at the high school, and then fills in as a supply teacher. He meets Celia (Barclay), daughter of his old girlfriend, and against all the odds the two become friends. Naturally, this being a small town, people look at this odd couple askance, but Paul and Celia are kindred spirits and continue to defy convention, until the day that Celia disappears and Paul comes under suspicion.

In My Father’s Den is a rather beautiful, melancholy movie about secrets, lies and families, in the traditional ‘all families are psychotic’ genre. The Prior family clearly has a lot of secrets and the lives of brothers Paul and Andrew have been blasted in consequence – Paul is emotionally cold and distant, with some interesting sexual kinks; Andrew appears to have a more conventionally successful emotional life, but his relationship with both his wife and son is harsh and unloving, their house hospital-like in it’s sterility. Paul takes refuge in his memories – of his bond with Iris (Riddell), and his time with his dad, in the shed where they spend most of their time.

Matthew MacFayden is so talented. In a performance that could not be more different to his forthcoming role as Darcy in Pride & Prejudice, he succeeds in presenting a superficially unlikeable character and making him not just sympathetic but actually rather loveable. Paul is a miserable bastard, friendless, lonely and inarticulate. He has become numb and disassociated from reality – taking refuge in booze, drugs and anonymous sex which he can’t even enjoy without a little extra stimulus. His awkward friendship with Celia, their common understanding and empathy, gradually cracks the ice and thaws him out, so that he can begin to make the journey back to life.

Emily Barclay, making her debut, is also stunning in the pivotal role. She is all awkward teenager, lanky hair and pale skin, sleeping with the local airhead boys because she’s bored and desperate, full of longing. An aspiring writer, Celia plays anywhere but here and dreams of a beachside café in Spain. Paul shows her a window to a wider world. The supporting cast are uniformly good and apparently there are lots of cameos which will be of interest to Kiwis. Miranda Otto, in her first film since playing Lady Eowyn, is excellent in a small but crucial part as the repressed and religious Penny.

This is not the grand New Zealand of The Lord of the Rings. Beautiful though it undoubtedly is, the world of In My Father’s Den has more in common with working class American films like Boys Don’t Cry and shares the theme of blighted lives and small town oppressiveness. Paul, as the outsider, with his British accent, is a breath of fresh air and glamour that upsets the balance in the stuffy little town. His brother resents him for leaving him behind with his father, and has problems of his own. It’s a muddy, foggy, damply autumnal place where kids hang around the few shops and get drunk because there’s nothing else to do.

The story is told through flashback in a non-linear fashion, framed by Celia’s voiceover (reading a story that she has entered into a writing contest) which has nothing to do with what’s happening on screen. The central mysteries unravel gradually and keep you guessing, making the audience work for their entertainment. Highly recommended. Good soundtrack too.

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