In My Father's Den is apparently loosely based upon the Maurice Gee novel of the same name. Having never read the book, and not being much of a Gee fan in any event, I'm not going to comment on any similarities - or lack of similarities - between the two.
Matthew MacFadyen leads the movie as Paul Prior, a lonely war photographer returning home to southern New Zealand for his father's funeral. Having been gone for 17 years Paul finds much that has changed in his hometown and discovers the consequences of actions taken by him, and his family, linger still. When Paul visits his father's house, and returns to the secret den that his father built, filled with books and music, he discovers Celia (Emily Barclay), a young woman with a yearning for something deeper than the small town life. At first he demands she leave, but Celia returns later under the fabricated excuse of a school assignment to learn more about this man who has caused ripples to spread like tidal waves amongst her town.
Paul is shown as a deeply troubled young man. His vices stretch from alcohol to fetish sex to drug taking. Yet he is the closest thing in this movie to someone who can be considered even remotely to be a hero. His brother Andrew (Colin Moy) owns a declining ostrich farm that he runs with his wife Penny (Miranda Otto) and son Jonathan (Jimmy Keen). A repressed and clearly bitter young man, Andrew has married a woman the spitting image of the boys' dead mother.
In My Father's Den runs a twisted, web like connection between its characters. Celia is early shown as the daughter of Paul's ex-girlfriend, born soon after he ran from home to explore the world. The web gets deeper, much deeper, and stickier as the movie goes on. Paul takes a teaching position for some few weeks in town as the final arrangements for his father's property are made. As time passes Paul builds a friendship with Celia - now one of his students - through meetings and long discussions held in the secret den that they share.
When Celia disappears the rumour-mill starts working overtime and Paul finds the town's suspicion and hatred turned on him - once his home, the town now sees him as the worst kind of outsider. Villified, and abused by those who distrust him, or are simply jealous of him, Paul travels a bleak and lonely road.
The movie keeps that bleakness throughout. From the opening shots of Paul on the train and the town under the shadow of the mountains, through to the end, In My Father's Den never relents. It is a dark movie, with Paul's drug taking, and the sexual moments of adolescents depicted sharply and without forgiveness. Paul's emotional journey is stark, and the claws of small-town life feel true as they are sunk into his back. In My Father's Den offers a deep and thoughtful look into a world of darkness and bitterness, in a way that will undoubtedly move you.
But it's far from perfect. MacFadyen does well enough with Paul and the building of the relationship with Celia is convincing and emotionally satisfying. Barclay's turn as Celia shows moments of strength but is often let down by a stilted and wooden reactions. Given the nature of his role Keen does remarkably well as Jonathan, but the rest supporting cast acting varies from the mediocre to the absolutely dire.
Some of the performance failures can be overlooked, some can't. The problems really begin to surface, however, in the final act which sometimes feels like an unrelated whodunnit. The end is not a resolution, but is simply an end, though in that sense it is perhaps far more realistic than perhaps it otherwise could have been.
Overall, however, In My Father's Den is deep, thoughtful and moving, albeit flawed, and should be seen by anyone not put off by the slightly perverse matters it discusses. From teen sex, to auto-asphyxiation, to drug taking, to what some would consider paedophilia, In My Father's Den is not a movie that takes things lightly, but it is a movie that takes firm control of them.
7.5 / 10