By PETER CALDER
(Herald rating * * * * )
As impressive a feature debut as Rain and the most substantial local film since the early 90s, Brad McGann's movie is less an adaptation of Maurice Gee's 1972 novel than one that, like Phillip Kaufman's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, inhales the essence of the source material and exhales something truly original.
As such, it represents a remarkable achievement by a writer-director who had to maintain his vision in the face of intense pressure inevitably brought to bear by the stakeholders in a co-production.
This is a universal story but it's located in an unmistakably indigenous landscape both physical - Central Otago deserves a place in the cast of characters - and emotional. More importantly, this is a New Zealand unlike Gee's, which, as McGann has observed, has long since gone: the relocation in time and place and the changes in character and motive combine to saturate the story in a thoroughly modern malaise.
The action is bookended by two funerals. The second is that of a character whose death we learn about on page one of the novel but not until well after the mid-point of the film. But it's the one at the beginning that sets the story moving. Paul Prior (Macfadyen), who arrives late for his father's smalltown send-off, is a photojournalist who has been away for years and has found fame - but nothing close to contentment - as an award-winning war photographer.
His return is greeted with suspicion by his brother Andrew (Moy), an ostrich farmer with a large chip on his shoulder and a deeply neurotic wife (Otto); his old girlfriend, Jackie (Rimmer); and Jackie's daughter, Celia (Barclay), who is entranced by the idea of escape the worldly visitor represents.
The blossoming of the relationship between teenager and newcomer into something darkly ambiguous upsets the knife-edge balance of the families and local community. Pretty soon skeletons start tumbling out of closets with an audible clatter and when Celia goes missing, suspicion falls on Paul.
McGann and his excellent ensemble exercise extraordinary control over their material, juggling elements of poetic psychological thriller and edgy police procedural with something close to mastery. McGann says he wanted to make a film driven more by character and mood than plot, "a slow burner, in which you could spend time with characters where not much was happening but you were absorbing the world and engaging in small moments" and Den is a film of many such moments. Macfadyen makes a great protagonist, neither hero nor anti-hero, but a character of depth and texture who fills the screen during many solo sequences and remains intensely watchable.
The young debutante Barclay is enormously impressive, too, sustaining, like Macfadyen, the sense that there is always more going on than meets the eye. The supporting parts are similarly well-handled, particularly in an explosive clash between Paul, Jackie and Jackie's man which crackles with an electricity not seen in a local picture since the domestic strife of the Hekes in Once Were Warriors.
Stuart Dryburgh's moody photography avoids the scenic cliches, tilting horizons and playing with depth of field so that the landscape is at times unsettling; and the soundtrack, which uses Patti Smith and Canteloube's Songs of the Auvergne along with a terrific score by Simon Boswell, is powerful but never overpowering.
This is by no means a flawless film. It feels 10 minutes too long and, paradoxically, the rapid-fire denouement will punish the least lapse in attention. Some of the sound is dodgy, too, and the muffled dialogue in a crucial argument between the brothers is distressing. But it's an engrossing and deeply satisfying work which deserves a wide audience.
CAST: Matthew Macfadyen, Miranda Otto, Emily Barclay, Colin Moy, Jodie Rimmer, Jimmy Keen, Geoff Dolan
DIRECTOR: Brad McGann
RUNNING TIME: 126 minutes
RATING: R16, contains violence, offensive language, drug use and sex scenes
Herald feature: In My Father's Den
By PETER CALDER