The past keeps knocking on the door of the present in New Zealander Brad McGann's intimate family drama In My Father's Den, one of those classic "onion" mysteries whereby layers of story are slowly peeled back to reveal a truth hidden at the centre. It's a credit to McGann's sly misdirection in dealing out clues that the truth, once it is finally exposed, turns out to be significantly different from what we had suspected.
Matthew Macfadyen plays Paul, a fêted but frazzled war photographer who returns to his remote New Zealand hometown after an absence of 17 years. The prodigal son is too late to be reunited with his father - indeed, he's an hour late for the old man's funeral. Yet there's a slight sense that even the living are ghosts to Paul, as he is to them: his younger brother Andrew (Colin Moy) looks taken aback by his reappearance, and from the start we detect some unspoken antipathy between them. He seems better able to bond with Andrew's wife, Penny (Miranda Otto), and their teenage son, Jonathan (Jimmy Keen), to whom he gifts an old camera - and thus sets a tragic plot in motion.
The same thing happens when he encounters his old girlfriend Jackie (Jodie Rimmer). He seems to have less in common with her than with her 16-year-old daughter Celia (Emily Barclay), a budding writer who yearns for a life beyond the pinched horizons of this rural backwater. Theirs becomes the pivotal relationship of the film: Paul sees in this restless girl a reminder of his teenage self, while Celia looks up to Paul as a man of experience, and wonders if she can pierce the emotional body-armour he has worn since his days in the war zone. Barclay is the stand-out here, playing a girl who knows she's too bright for her peers but doesn't yet have the resources to strike out on her own. She delivers her lines in a lovely sidelong way, and we can see instantly why Paul, an ice man for so long, thaws against her wistfulness.
The casting director Diana Rowan has found an uncanny match not only between the two brothers but between the mother and daughter. In a story where family resemblances count for something it lends a compulsion to the mood, as does the musical motif of Patti Smith's album Horses. McGann, adapting from a Maurice Gee novel, is very good at noticing the details of a life, and catches precisely the narrow, gossipy spirit of small-town New Zealand, a place of flat light and drowning rain. The way the plot unravels, with shadows of abduction flitting around and about like swallows, bears a faint resemblance to another mystery, Lantana, one of the best films to emerge from the Antipodes in the last five years.
Alas, after McGann's carefully paced journey towards revelation, the last 20 minutes careen off the road into melodrama: shotguns, flashbacks, fatal misunderstandings, the lot. I had hoped never to see again the scene in which a character hovers provocatively on a landing with a steep drop behind, inviting a maddened adversary to push them over the handrail to their doom (they nearly always crash onto the coffee table). Lo, here it is. Perhaps this was a weakness in the novel that McGann couldn't find a way past; perhaps he introduced it himself. Either way, it jars against the complex, character-driven puzzle that had absorbed us hitherto. But this first-time feature will linger, I think, if not for its painful extraction of family secrets then for Barclay's brightly assured performance.
Not since Tom Brown was persecuted by Flashman has there been such a torrid tale of school bullying as Mikael Hafstrom's splendid drama Evil. Set in 1950s Stockholm, it concerns the travails of problem pupil Erik (Andreas Wilson), whose mother sends him to a posh boarding school in order to protect him from his brutish stepfather. But there's no respite from violence here, either: the school observes a tradition whereby the prefects are in charge of administering discipline, which effectively means they can terrorise and humiliate the younger boys with impunity. Erik watches as his peers are hauled up by head prefect Silverhielm (Gustaf Skarsgard) and dinked painfully on the head with bits of cutlery. Soon enough his own turn comes. His instinct is to fight back, but this is his last chance to graduate to Upper School and he can't risk expulsion.
Hafstrom and his co-writer Hans Gunnarsson are adapting from a novel by Jan Guillou, though they clearly have Lindsay Anderson's If.... in mind, especially in the picture of a school run by sadistic prefects rather than teachers, seen here as either distant or ineffectual presences. Evil, however, is no anarchic satire: it seeks to explore the idea of honour, and the difficulty of maintaining it in the face of vicious intimidation. Wilson gives a saturnine performance as reluctant hero Erik, and Henrik Lundstrom as his best (and only) friend Pierre, a roly-poly bright spark, offers likeable support. In another time and country they might have been Jennings and Darbyshire getting into "scrapes". Instead they are innocents trying to survive a world run by jackals, and the implications of such savagery - humans hunt in packs from an early age - cannot but lend the film a needling bleakness.
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