• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

In My Father's Den review

Brad McGann's adaptation of Maurice Gee's novel is a seriously impressive achievement.

Brad McGann's brilliant, involving and ultimately devastating version of In My Father's Den is that rare type of adaptation: one that doesn't just successfully translate a great book (although that's rare enough), but just as successfully updates it and refreshes it, finding new ways into its difficult emotions, amplifying and renewing its themes. The key to Maurice Gee's novel - and this film - is that great New Zealand urge: the need to get away, to get out. The corollary of that is an equally typical New Zealand feeling: the fear or disappointment faced when coming back.

The familiar publicity image from this film is of teenage Celia (Emily Barclay) lying meditatively on train tracks, which is less about suicidal tendencies - she has none of those - or the anticipation of a coffin, than a fairly immediate metaphor for really, really wanting to leave. "I'd rather be a no one somewhere than a someone nowhere," she says. Her dream destination is Spain. You can also get away without leaving, which is escapism or imagination. In the book, Paul Prior, who as a teacher becomes a sort of father figure to the intellectual outcast Celia, himself escaped into books as a teenager: Gee uses Paul's reading of Dostoevsky as a signal of his wilful opposition to New Zealand conformism and the religious fundamentalism of his mother, a tragic figure in both book and film. McGann's innovation is to replace Dostoevsky with Patti Smith, whose music has all the romantic defiance and yearning of teenagers who want to be anywhere but here - and, heard again as an adult, the same songs are suggestive of dreams that weren't fulfilled, promises that weren't kept (the songs are Free Money and Land from Horses). Paul's teenage girlfriend, Celia's mother, even scrawled the important message on the back of the Patti Smith LP: "In case we ever forget who we are."

She stayed, and forgot, and became the butcher in the small Otago town that replaces Gee's West Auckland. Paul left, becoming a photojournalist who specialises in war atrocities, which suggests that he is already wearing a bulletproof suit of emotional reserve long before he returns to Otago, to bury his father and face his demons. In the subtle, exceptionally capable British actor Matthew Macfadyen, McGann finds a soulful and charismatic Paul to set against a stiff and dangerously repressed Andrew (Colin Moy), Paul's brother, who has inherited their mother's world-hating religious temperament (in the novel, she burns a copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass) and married her replica, played by Australian actress Miranda Otto as a kind of mute, depressed captive. But Paul has more of his father in him, and his den was another way to escape without leaving: Paul's father stocked a small, secret room with inspirational books and music. In the film, a generation on, Celia finds the den and makes it her own, which identifies her as having the same outsider strain.

Both novel and film are flashback-heavy, but neither feels complicated. McGann lays it out painstakingly, and the film is slow to start with, before it shifts gears into a disappearance story - Celia goes missing, after visiting Paul one Sunday - that has a gripping and unnerving tension. There are secret rooms and then there are secrets within secrets and it's unlikely that any viewer - even, or maybe especially, those briefed by a quick re-read of the novel - will be prepared for what follows and the way that the story eventually untangles. In outdoor shots, Otago looks like being on the cusp of winter and spring, but McGann and his cinematographer, Stuart Dryburgh, favour dark colours and damp textures. At times, the film can feel like a slow nightmare played out underwater, as McGann even adapts Patti Smith's horses-and-sea imagery from Land to give the film a whole other interpretational level - this review's title, by the way, is from that song. Grafting Smith's Horses to Gee's novel was hugely inspired - a risk that paid off - and I'd love to know how McGann came up with the idea. His film is one seriously impressive achievement.

IN MY FATHER'S DEN, directed by Brad McGann.

Olivia Kember's interview with Emily Barclay here.