Verdict: A classic New Zealand story, perfectly told
In 1995, film-maker Gaylene Preston sat seven New Zealand women down in front of the camera and had them recall their experiences of life on the home front, during World War II.
The result was that rarest of things - a newly minted work that instantly became a precious cultural artefact. Women's stories are less often told than men's (although Preston's diverse output, which includes a biopic of pioneering unionist Sonja Davies, has done much to redress that balance) and War Stories - one of whose interviewees was Preston's mother, Tui - was a lovingly detailed portrait, as eye-opening as it was moving, of Milton's idea that "they also serve who only stand and wait".
Her new film, which touchingly opens with the ringing song of a tui under the titles and centres on her father, Ed, tells the story of many thousands of Kiwi men. Enlisting on impulse on the way home from rugby practice in Greymouth in 1940, he tells his stunned wife, who is carrying their first child, that he'll "probably be home by Christmas".
His blithe pronouncement is loaded with dramatic irony, of course, and the film that follows shows us why. Ed Preston's war was short on battlefield glory; he was a prisoner of war within weeks and it would be a few more Christmases before he made it back to Greymouth.
At all costs, resist the temptation to see this as a dry and worthy war history. What Preston has done here is capture the essence of her generation's experience of their parents and distilled it into a film that every New Zealander should see. She's based the film on audio interviews she conducted with her dying father several years before War Stories was made. In those, he was tellingly discreet in case Tui heard them after he had gone, but in this filmed version his evasiveness becomes profoundly expressive.
Much of that is down to a brilliant performance by Barry who enacts Eddie's reminiscences with an eerily precise authenticity. Bringing impromptu speech to life is a task that eludes the best of actors, but Barry delivers a masterclass, not reciting from a script but somehow inhaling the essence of what Eddie said and becoming a complete character of plausibility and conviction. The fact that he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer adds another level of resonance to a story full of piercing ironies.
The interviews are seamlessly interwoven with archive footage and dramatisations in which Henderson and Preston-Crayford, the director's daughter, play her parents.
It's a heady mix but the result is a small miracle of a film, a triumphant marriage of form and content and an instant classic. I cannot recommend it too highly.
Cast: Martin Henderson, Tony Barry, Chelsie Preston-Crayford
Director: Gaylene Preston
Running time: 90 mins
Rating: PG (low-level offensive language)