Screened as part of NZIFF 2004
Let’s be the first to acclaim and celebrate the strongest New Zealand dramatic feature since Once Were Warriors and Heavenly Creatures. Like them, Brad McGann’s gripping psychological mystery is a tragedy reverberant with New Zealand life. Adapted and updated, with considerable freedom and rare intelligence, from Maurice Gee’s 1972 novel, the film tells the story of Paul, an internationally successful war photographer who’s seen – and photographed – too much of the world. He returns, after the death of his father, to the small Central Otago town he fled as a youth. With his dry, cutting delivery of Paul’s every pithy line, charismatic British actor Matthew Macfadyen brings cosmopolitan edge to a New Zealand archetype, the man alone.
Paul’s contemporaries who stayed behind, notably his older brother, and his first girlfriend Jackie, greet the prodigal with mixed feelings. Staying longer then intended, he picks up a temporary job at the district school. His young nephew and Jackie’s precocious 16-year-old daughter, Celia, are less guarded, tantalised by the cryptic figure from their parents’ past. Paul senses a kindred spirit in the pushy Celia. Her ambitions to explore the world breathe some life into the embers of his own enthusiasms. Newcomer Emily Barclay is heart-breakingly authentic as this smart, gauche kid, unleashing the cleverness she’s kept under wraps, in a headlong crush on teacher. When she goes AWOL, local insinuations about Paul’s interest in her become outright accusations. As fears for Celia grow, so does the appalling atmosphere of recrimination, stoked by Paul’s contempt for his accusers and his refusal to betray his young friend. Incredibly suspenseful, the film takes us with him to the brink of nervous collapse as he struggles to extricate the truth from a densely compacted legacy of resentment, greed, deceit and shame.
Expect volumes to be written about the thematic richness of this film, its troubling perceptions about the mutually exacerbating conflict of liberalism and puritanism in the pakeha psyche; our distrust of intellectuals; our pride in isolation and our envy of the world at large. There’s a fiercely critical understanding of parochialism at work here, expressed with a cumulative emotional power that I, for one, found shattering, and cathartic. — BG