Romulus, My Father

Romulus, My Father

****1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Richard Roxburgh is probably best known to British audiences for his larger than life performances as characters such as The Duke in Moulin Rouge! and Dracula in Van Helsing. It comes as something of a surprise to discover him putting together some beautifully understated direction in his debut turn behind the camera.

He should be praised, not only for his excellent camerawork in Romulus, My Father, but also for eliciting a child performance from Kodi Smit-McPhee, so exquisite as to rival that of Christian Bale in Empire Of The Sun and Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense. Remember that double-barrelled name, folks, since, with any luck, it will be gracing our film screens for a long time to come.

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Smit-McPhee plays Raimond Gaita in this film, based on the memoir of the Australian philospher’s childhood. The son of immigrant parents – dad Romulus is Yugoslavian and mum Christina German – Raimond lives in a rural nowhere, where, despite Romulus’s unbounded love, he faces a raft of emotional trauma, thanks to the flightiness of his depressive "Muti".

She flits in and out of Rai’s life, according to her whims, and is indulged by both he and his father, who believes that all she needs is unconditional love. When, however, already showing all the signs of being mentally unstable, she takes on another lover and becomes pregnant, the strain it puts on everyone leaves cracks in their souls.

The film unfolds at a leisurely pace which allows the actors room to explore their characters. Eric Bana, as Romulus, puts in one of his most finely tuned performances to date, slowly letting his character’s patience and mental state unravel as he goes through the emotional wringer. His relationship with Smit-McPhee is so natural, one could almost believe them to be father and son in real life.

They are equalled by the ever-reliable and luminous Franka Potente, who keeps her portrayal of a mother on the edge of the right side of hysteria.

Like many of the best dramas to come out of Australia in recent years, such as Jindabyne and Rabbit-Proof Fence, Romulus, My Father, builds up an emotional head of steam that draws audiences towards it. Roxburgh, like Phillip Noyce and Ray Lawrence, also uses the Australian landscape to great effect, employing the wide open spaces to emphasise Rai’s sense of powerlessness. Praise, too, must go to the supporting cast, particularly Alethea McGrath and Esme Melville (in her penultimate role before her death), as a pair of elderly neighbours, who, despite limited screentime, leave an indelible impression.

Thanks to the pacing and poetically leaning script by playwright and poet Nick Drake, the audience are given plenty of time to emotionally connect with the unfolding drama and, while this is a snapshot of a childhood descending into dark waters, it has more of an upbeat and philosophical feel than you might expect. The worthy winner in four categories – including best film and best director – at the Australian Film Institute Awards (after a record-breaking 17 nominations), those who catch it at the Australian Film Festival in London are in for a treat.

Reviewed on: 18 Feb 2008
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Tale of familial love and emotional upheaval in post-war Australia. Touring.
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Director: Richard Roxburgh

Writer: Nick Drake, based on the memoir by Raimond Gaita

Starring: Eric Bana, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Franka Potente, Marton Csokas, Russell Dykstra, Jacek Koman, Alethea McGrath, Esme Melville, Terry Norris, Veronica Sywak

Year: 2007

Runtime: 104 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Australia

Festivals:

Australia 2008

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