In My Father's Den

English Title: In My Father's Den

Country of Origin: New Zealand

Studio: Fathers Den Productions Limited/IMFD Limited

Director: Brad McGann

Producer(s): Trevor Haysom, Dixie Linder

Screenplay: Brad McGann

Cinematographer: Stuart Dryburgh

Art Director: Phil Ivey

Editor: Chris Plummer

Runtime: 127 minutes

Genre: Mystery/Drama

Language: English

Starring/Cast: Emily Barclay, Miranda Otto, Jimmy Keen, Matthew Macfadyen, Colin Moy, Jodie Rimmer

Year: 2004

Volume: Australasian

Expatriate war journalist/photographer Paul Prior returns from Europe to his childhood home in the Central Otago region of New Zealand for the funeral of his father Jeff. He meets his embittered brother Andrew, Andrew’s repressed wife Penny and their son Jonathon who, like Paul, is interested in photography. He also meets a 16-year-old teenage girl called Celia, daughter of his ex-girlfriend Jackie. The film’s first half mixes these present-day events with flashbacks to Paul’s childhood and adolescence when he discovered his father’s den, and Paul’s family suffered a tragedy involving his religiously-inclined mother. Halfway through the film, Celia, after befriending Paul who has become her English teacher, disappears, and a mystery grows concerning her fate. Paul becomes a prime police suspect because of their closeness and the audience is encouraged to speculate on whether they also have a blood relationship. The film’s second half juggles the ‘present’ of the investigation with flashbacks to the recent, growing friendship between Paul and Celia. Audience curiosity about what has actually happened intensifies, as do conflicts between Paul and other relatives and community members. In the film’s final scenes the various mysteries of the plot are explained and family secrets resurface.

In My Father’s Den is one of the most accomplished films ever made in New Zealand, ranking with The Piano, Heavenly Creatures and Once Were Warriors. As both scriptwriter and director, Brad McGann shows extraordinary skills in what was first feature film. Sadly, it was also his last as he died from cancer at just 43, before he could work on another film. Adapting Maurice Gee’s 1972 novel, McGann made radical revisions to the plot as he reconceptualized its core messages. Among these changes were two notable ones: McGann changed the identity of a killer from the novel’s perpetrator to another character, and he also made Paul Prior and Celia blood relatives whereas in the novel they were completely unrelated.

The novel’s themes had been the venomous effects of Puritanism, conformity and repression and the stifling effects of provincialism. McGann replaced these issues with an emphasis on the links between actual warfare and the battlegrounds of family life, lack of communication leading to damaging secrets, and the intergenerational continuity of creative impulses. At the film’s heart is the mystery of Paul Prior: who he is now and what has made him this way – his enigmatic nature eventually shown as originating in traumas he suffered from breaches of trust by those closest to him, including his mother and his father.

Misunderstandings and their consequences are also foregrounded: Penny thinks Celia is Andrew’s mistress; Penny misinterprets Jonathon’s photos; Celia reacts to Paul’s photograph of her as a baby; Jackie interrupts the birthday party at the den (the film’s most crucial and poignant scene); Andrew and Jonathon see Paul and Celia running in from the rain. These confusions are exacerbated by conflicting feelings of constraint and hope and by families becoming war zones instead of sites of forgiveness.

Shifts in sexual politics from the 1970s to the twenty-first century help explain McGann’s making Paul and Celia blood relatives. He wanted to desexualize Paul’s relationship with Celia, while sexualizing that of another key pair of characters. This shift in tone means that almost all the film’s men are seen negatively in terms of their sexual dysfunctions: Andrew’s mother fixation; Paul’s asphyxiation fetish; Jeff’s adultery; Gareth’s harassment of Celia; Jonathon’s stalking and voyeurism. In contrast, the film applies positive discrimination to its women characters: they are mostly professionals in what might be seen as principally male occupations (religious minister, principal of a co-educational school, senior police detective).

Paul is probably the most complex fictional character ever presented in a New Zealand feature film, given many flaws such as drug-taking and sexual fetishes that balance his virtues of honesty and creative temperament. For much of the film his strengths as a protagonist are matched by the equally creative Celia, who is really the story’s saving grace. Overlaying several key scenes is Celia’s voice-over reading of a short story she has submitted to a creative writing contest and this provides an effective coded commentary on plot events.

McGann shuffles time in a particularly complex way with 21 flashbacks. There is a big narrative jump halfway through the film, with an abrupt change in tone and a different use of recent and distant flashbacks. This interplay of past and present is taken from such models as Dennis Potter’s TV series The Singing Detective and the Canadian film The Sweet Hereafter. In My Father’s Den has a double ending juxtaposing fateful family sins and dishonesty with the happier possibility shown by Paul and Celia amicably resolving their relationship. This suggests the potential for a contemporary family formation which does not need to be based on conventional or hierarchical generations.

Author of this review: Brian McDonnell