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In My Father's Den

Reviewed By Stephen Groenewegen
Posted 06/13/04 16:50:21

"Family plots"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

The New Zealand-UK co-production In My Fatherís Den is an adult drama-mystery in the vein of Lantana. Set in picturesque small-town New Zealand and centring on a dysfunctional family, the film is equal parts coming-of-age tale, returning home story and kinky gothic soap.

In My Fatherís Den opens and closes with a funeral. Paul Prior (British actor Matthew MacFadyen) hasnít seen his father since he fled home as a 17 year-old. Now a 30-something war journalist, he arrives late for his dadís memorial service, igniting the slow-burning fuse of brother Andrew (Colin Moy). Paul agrees to stay in town for a while and becomes the object of a schoolgirl crush. Sixteen year-old Celia (Emily Barclay) is the illegitimate daughter of Paulís first girlfriend (Jodie Rimmer). She wants to be a writer and feels as limited by her parochial neighbourhood as Paul. Their growing friendship attracts the ire of their families and the local community. When Celia disappears, Paul becomes the chief suspect.

In My Fatherís Den is the directorial debut of Brad McGann. He wrote the screenplay from a novel by Maurice Gee. As in Peyton Place and the worlds of David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks), thereís a seething underbelly to this idyllic town that involves voyeurism, auto-erotic asphyxiation, incest, sexual abuse, Oedipal complexes, mental illness, family violence, suicide, the ritualised humiliation of teenage girls and vigilantism. McGann avoids the salaciousness and surrealism of his forebears; the tone of In My Fatherís Den is brooding angst.

McGann would have done better to pare back the film, even if it meant losing some of the subplots. Like Lantana, it starts out a character drama and becomes a mystery story, but the first half of In My Fatherís Den meanders and threatens to lose focus. Many scenes add context to characters (such as the drunken teenage party) but little to the plot. McGann overburdens his film with symbolism Ė horses, an eagle, ostriches, seashells, an atlas. He is not content to merely have Celia recite poetry but we also have to listen to her reading her short story over the soundtrack. Sometimes less is more.

There are riveting performances from a strong cast, which includes Miranda Otto as Andrewís housebound wife. The permanently stubbled MacFadyen makes for an appealingly gruff ďlone wolfĒ lead. McGann and his editor deftly incorporate the inevitable flashbacks into the narrative. Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh also shot The Piano and the ruggedly beautiful landscapes add texture to the characterís environments. Unfortunately, his interior scenes are so dark itís sometimes difficult to make out exactly whatís going on. Coupled with the muffled sound design (perhaps exacerbated by the poor acoustics of the cavernous State Theatre), it made the convoluted revelations and resolution of In My Fatherís Den somewhat hard to follow.

Nevertheless, the film remains absorbing and intriguing throughout. Itís both a bold debut for McGann and, as Opening Night film, a promising start to the 51st Sydney Film Festival.

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