Lost be­tween the lines

Ro­mu­lus, My Fa­ther ( M) Na­tional re­lease Pi­rates of the Caribbean: At World’s End ( M ) Na­tional re­lease

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Evan Wil­liams

IKNOW crit­ics who make a point of never read­ing books that are be­ing made into films. And when a book is as rare and beau­ti­ful as Ro­mu­lus, My Fa­ther — Rai­mond Gaita’s ex­quis­ite mem­oir of his child­hood in rural Vic­to­ria — the risk that our judg­ment of the film will be dis­torted by mem­o­ries of the printed word is all the greater.

My mis­take was not so much to read the book but to read it a cou­ple of days be­fore see­ing Richard Roxburgh’s film. I still can’t get the thing out of mind. The book, I mean.

Ro­mu­lus, My Fa­ther is a fine film, in many ways a dis­tin­guished one: vivid, re­flec­tive, tinged with a unique and lin­ger­ing melan­choly, wholly re­spect­ful of the tone and spirit of Gaita’s story. Yet how I wish I had gone to it un­pre­pared.

It re­quires a cer­tain kind of men­tal agility, be­yond my crit­i­cal fac­ul­ties, to pre­tend that what’s up there on the screen is all that mat­ters. So at­tuned was I still to the rhythms of Gaita’s prose that I quickly found my­self long­ing for his calm au­tho­rial voice, for his first- per­son nar­ra­tion to kick in on the sound­track: not so much to tell us what is hap­pen­ing, but to in­vest the film with the same weight of in­sight and wis­dom.

I sup­pose all this is a way of say­ing the film is a dis­ap­point­ment, or per­haps that any film of this book would be a dis­ap­point­ment. Yet the story is pro­foundly mov­ing. Its core is the love be­tween a fa­ther and his son, and it’s told through the eyes of the boy Rai­mond, un­for­get­tably played by Kodi Smit- McPhee.

Rai­mond’s fa­ther, Ro­mu­lus ( Eric Bana), a Ro­ma­nian- speak­ing Yu­goslav mi­grant, has ex­pe­ri­enced the hor­rors of war and set­tled in the Vic­to­rian town of Bar­inghup with his wife Christina ( Franka Po­tente), whom he has loved since she was 16. Ro­mu­lus is an iron­worker — he makes gar­den furniture and or­na­ments — and is a man of un­com­pro­mis­ing truth­ful­ness and gen­eros­ity, un­shak­able in loy­alty to his friends and de­vo­tion to his fam­ily.

In adapt­ing Gaita’s mem­oir, English poet Nick Drake has re­stricted him­self to one or two years in the early 1960s, when Rai­mond was about 14. This was prob­a­bly wise. It is hard to imag­ine how any­one else could have matched the mag­i­cal power of Smit- McPhee while bear­ing some phys­i­cal re­sem­blance to him.

But there is a price for com­pres­sion: we see noth­ing of Ro­mu­lus’s past life, his meet­ing with Christina, his early years in Aus­tralia at Bonegilla mi­grant camp or the be­gin­nings of his fate­ful friend­ship with the Ro­ma­nian brothers Hora and Mitru. So when Mitru ( Rus­sell Dyk­stra) be­gins a re­la­tion­ship with Christina, Ro­mu­lus’s shock and mis­ery strike us with less force than they should. And Christina’s de­pres­sion, her promis­cu­ity, her dis­as­trous in­ad­e­quacy as a mother, seem more like sud­den wil­ful­ness and im­petu­os­ity than the prod­uct of deep- seated trauma.

I hate to quib­ble about a film as de­cent as this. Among other things, Roxburgh and cin­e­matog­ra­pher Ge­of­frey Simp­son have caught the mood of rural work­ing life with great feel­ing, and the parched land­scape is as flinty and beau­ti­ful as Gaita de­scribes it.

Bana’s kindly face shines with open­ness and can­dour, even if we never quite sense the in­ten­sity of his fatherly feel­ing or the no­bil­ity of his char­ac­ter. Play­ing a saintly man is never easy, and it’s not enough that the script should ac­cord him the oc­ca­sional right- think­ing sen­ti­ment.

Ev­ery­thing about Ro­mu­lus’s love of truth­ful­ness we must in­fer from his one an­gry plea to Rai­mond af­ter the boy steals his ra­zor. The many heart- rend­ing things in Ro­mu­lus, My Fa­ther seem to take place in a sus­pended re­al­ity, un­con­nected to me­mory or ex­pe­ri­ence. For a man of earnest philo­soph­i­cal con­vic­tions, we get to know lit­tle of Ro­mu­lus’s in­ner life.

Mar­ton Csokas makes a splen­didly ro­bust and en­gag­ing Hora, a kind of sec­ond fa­ther to the boy, and Po­tente con­veys the mother’s agony and self- loathing with­out alien­at­ing our sym­pa­thy. But it is through Rai­mond’s char­ac­ter that Ro­mu­lus, My Fa­ther ceases to be a litany of sor­rows and be­comes a cel­e­bra­tion of love.

Rai­mond is not only the ob­server of the story but the mir­ror in which the oth­ers are re­flected. Smit- McPhee’s per­for­mance is en­chant­ing in its grace and spon­tane­ity. Fear and sor­row come read­ily to him: cow­er­ing from his fa­ther’s raised axe, visit­ing his fa­ther in a men­tal hospi­tal, griev­ing for his mother’s stinted love. But I was even more taken with his boy­ish vi­tal­ity, his joy­ous en­thu­si­asms, his lov­ing at­ten­tion to his baby half- sis­ter. It is through the child that we come, how­ever im­per­fectly, to know the fa­ther. And per­haps that is as it should be.

* * * IT’S 32 min­utes, by my cal­cu­la­tion, be­fore the first ap­pear­ance of Johnny Depp in Pi­rates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, and it seems a long wait for his mis­chievous, en­liven­ing pres­ence. Those dart­ing eyes and ra­bid, toothy frowns are among the great charms of the se­ries.

Depp’s char­ac­ter, Jack Spar­row, has been trapped in Davy Jones’s locker, and his help is needed to de­stroy a ma­raud­ing ghost ship, the Fly­ing Dutch­man, com­manded by Ad­mi­ral Nor­ring­ton ( Jack Daven­port) of the Bri­tish East In­dia Com­pany, whose ar­madas are wreak­ing havoc with the pi­rat­i­cal com­mu­nity.

The pre­vi­ous in­stal­ment, Dead Man’s Chest , was the third- rank­ing box- of­fice earner of all time, and if pro­ducer Jerry Bruck­heimer and di­rec­tor Gore Verbin­ski have their way, At World’s End will be even big­ger.

It’s cer­tainly longer, close to three hours, with higher noise lev­els and more elab­o­rate spec­ta­cles. And again it works nicely. Ge­of­frey Rush, as the splen­didly de­vi­ous Bar­bossa, in­sists good pi­rates ‘‘ hon­our the code’’, which for good Dis­ney ex­ec­u­tives means hon­our­ing the for­mula: swash­buck­ling ac­tion and scary su­per­nat­u­ral ef­fects with touches of hu­mour and ro­mance.

Th­ese el­e­ments suc­ceed one an­other in more or less ran­dom or­der, but in the cli­mac­tic bat­tle they are com­bined in one stu­pen­dous se­quence. As one of­fi­cer ob­serves to Nor­ring­ton, speak­ing ad­mir­ingly of Spar­row: ‘‘ Do you think he plans all this or just makes it up as he goes along?’’ A good ques­tion.

At World’s End: Rush, Keira Knight­ley and Depp

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.