In My Father’s Den (2004)

Rating: C+

Dir: Brad McGann
Star: Matthew Macfadyen, Emily Barclay, Colin Moy, Miranda Otto

Paul Prior (Macfadyen) is a war photographer who comes back to the small town in New Zealand where he grew up, following the death of his father. His arrival is like a stone dropped into the placid waters of the sleepy area; his abrasive temperament alienates his brother (Moy), but acts as a lightning-rod for Celia (Barclay), a young girl born shortly after his departure, who dreams of the world outside. The two form a relationship which is viewed suspiciously by the local residents, not least because Prior has taken a job teaching at the school, with Celia one of his students. And when Celia vanishes, much more than suspicion falls on Prior.

McGann adopts a fractured approach, with information delivered in a carefully measured style, as if from an eye-dropper. He doesn’t care for traditional set-up; the characters arrive on screen without introduction, and you have to wait for events to unfold. There is an element of deception here, with the structure used to conceal the truth as much as anything, up until the end when the truth is revealed. And it’s probably a good deal worse than we could have imagined. A cheat? Possibly, and the tragedy plays out at its own pace, which some may find slow.

But it’s undeniably effective, and Macfadyen is excellent in portraying a multifaceted character with enough baggage to fill a cruise-ship hold: I was reminded of Clive Owen, which is never a bad thing. Must say, subtitles may be needed with some of the stronger accents – I’ve clearly been away from the Commonwealth too long – but it’s worth perservering. If there’s a moral here, it’s probably “Whatever can go wrong, will.” In the light of this, it’s ironic, and sad, that director McGann died of cancer in May at age 43, with this his only feature.