August 1, 2008

In My Father's Den

Two things sent me back to this In My Father's Den review (originally in the NZ Listener, October 9, 2004). First the news that Maurice Gee's much-loved kids' fantasy book Under the Mountain is getting the remake treatment, courtesy of Black Sheep auteur Jonathan King -- and presumably effects-by-Weta is again a selling point as NZ tries to position itself as the film world's boutique fantasy exporter -- but, more important, a fresh re-reading of Gee's classic 1978 novel Plumb. That book is widely taken as Gee's finest hour -- indeed, Bill Manhire regularly describes it as the best NZ novel ever written -- but what was particularly interesting this time around, apart from Gee's metaphorical language of Plumb as straightness and recurring, Biblical images of fruit and barren-ness, was Gee's ambivalent relationship with Protestant religiosity. We admire the stands that George Plumb takes -- WWI-era pacifism, radical free-thinking -- but we can see how his near-messianic self-belief damages the lives of his wife and children, and we can see the contradictions that the man himself cannot see, particularly when he scoffs at the guru his son has chosen to follow -- really just another man with unconventional religious views. For Gee, strong religious belief usually comes with an equally strong sense of intolerance -- which is something that matters in In My Father's Den.

Brad McGann’s brilliant, involving and ultimately devastating version of In My Father’s Den was 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 Gee’s novel – and this film – is that great New Zealand urge: the need to get away, to get out, to make something of yourself somewhere else. The corollary of that is another typical New Zealand feeling: the fear or disappointment faced when coming back, an abiding sense of personal failure.

The familiar publicity image from the 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 go away without leaving, which is escapism or imagination. In the novel, Paul Prior, who as a teacher becomes a sort of father figure to the intellectual outcast Celia, escaped into books as a teenager: Gee uses Paul’s reading of Dostoevsky to signal his wilful opposition to dreary 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 best 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 a butcher in the small Otago town that replaces Gee’s West Auckland (the feeling is that West Auckland is too suburbanised now, lacking that vital sense of rural dread, which puts this film squarely in the "Cinema of Unease" tradition, as Duncan Petrie has noted). Paul left New Zealand, 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 past. In the subtle, exceptionally capable British actor Matthew Macfadyen, McGann found 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 to demonstrate her opposition to all things sensual) 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 the den of the title was another way to escape without leaving: Paul’s father stocked a small, secret room with 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 between winter and spring, but McGann and his cinematographer, Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano), 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 original title, The Sea's the Possibility, came from that song). Grafting Smith’s Horses onto Gee’s novel was hugely inspired – a creative risk that really paid off – and I’d love to know how McGann came up with the idea. His film was one seriously impressive achievement.

The sad postscript to that achievement is that Brad McGann died in May 2007, after a battle with cancer. He was 43. He never got to make a second feature.