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in 29st Toronto International Film Festival

by Henry Sheehan

Treatment and perspective, rather than subject or plot, are the winning features of In My Father’s Den, the debut feature from New Zealander Brad McGann, which won the FIPRESCI prize at the 2004 Toronto International Film Festival.

In one of several strong performances, Matthew Macfadyen portrays Paul, a veteran photojournalist who has become famous largely for his depictions of children’s suffering. Conflicted enough over the exploitation of his subjects that he has turned down a prize for his work, Paul is first shown returning to his isolated New Zealand hometown for the funeral of his father. It is his first visit in 15 years, and the not unexpected strains with his stay-at-home brother (Colin Moy) quickly emerge.

The stage seems set for a familiar family melodrama, complete with the muted tone and painful conversations associated with the genre’s more hackneyed formulas. However McGann, who adapted Maurice Gee’s novel, introduces the first in a series of shifts which feel as emotionally logical as they sound merely abrupt.

With surprising ease, Paul postpones his return to the world of journalism when he answers a former teacher’s plea to supplement the faculty at the woefully understaffed local public school. McGann displays what will soon emerge as a characteristic appreciation for mixed motives: Paul surely is responding to the egotistical pleasure of extending his reign as a local celebrity, but it is also clear that he is responding to some deeper, if less explicable, urge for a home.

By this time, Paul is living in a remote cottage near a hideaway his father maintained and which the son discovered in his youth. This is the den of the title, a cozy lair filled with books, a globe, a comfortable chair and wine, all of which clearly represented the wider world to both father and son.

The den means the same to the film’s second significant character, a 15-year-old girl named Celia (remarkably well played by Emily Barclay), one of Paul’s students. She is the fatherless daughter of an old girlfriend, but it isn’t this which initially attracts him to her. Rather, it is her intellectual curiosity and sense of alienation, his own adolescent qualities, which soon bind the two in a tight friendship which belies the 16 years between them. Not surprisingly, the relationship raises local eyebrows.

As Paul’s new life grows in complexity, so does McGann’s technique. Primarily, this involves increasingly complex editing which more and more involves Paul’s past. But it also includes a less obvious, but equally significant, reinvention of material from earlier in the film. Thus, melodrama gives way to suspense, as, in the confluence of past and present, Celia abruptly disappears.

Impressively, considering that In My Father’s Den is his first feature, McGann crucially misleads the audience without playing unfair. Viewers and Paul himself come to believe that they know a secret that underlies his relationship with Celia, a secret that he keeps even at the risk to his own safety. In a final twist that some might find too flamboyant, others in keeping with the material, the film reveals that no one knew — or remembered — the truth after all.

Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh shoots In My Father’s Den in dark, moist tones that accentuate the essential loneliness of all the characters, whether they find themselves in lonely landscapes, partition-making home décor, or in dark, secretive hideaways.