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