Shine and Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts director Scott Hicks returns to Australia with this UK/Australian production based on Simon Carr’s memoir The Boys Are Back In Town. Clive Owen plays Joe Warr, an English sportswriter living with his family in Australia in what the early stages of the film depict as an almost completely idyllic domestic bliss. After the death of his wife, Joe is left to raise his 6-year-old son Artie (Nicholas McAnulty) and then also Harry (George MacKay), his 14-year-old son from a previous marriage. Joe copes with his loss, fatherhood and his new responsibilities by adopting a “Just Say Yes” policy of no rule making. The almost complete lack of discipline results in a home environment that is partially wickedly anarchic and fun but also increasingly unsettling in its recklessness and declining standards.
The Boys are Back is a film that peaks very early with a truly astonishing portrayal of a family responding to the decline and then death of a loved one. Scott avoids repetitive scenes of weeping and wailing so that when characters do breakdown it is at moments where it really counts. Owen plays Joe perfectly, embodying a man who is trying to appear strong and stoic while his world collapses around him. He is a man with avoidance issues who is emotionally distant from his sons but has a genuine desire to connect with them, despite the debatable methods that he uses to do so. His lack of concern for the safety of his sons will traumatise some audience members while delighting others.
Unfortunately as The Boys are Back develops it never manages to sustain the same intense engagement that the opening scenes commanded. There is an interesting dynamic between Joe, Artie and Nicholas but it never amounts to anything truly substantial. The characters evolve adequately and the film contains its necessary crisis points but it feels all a bit too safely played out. A romantic subplot goes nowhere and some of the secondary characters lack depth. Joe’s mother-in-law Barbara (Julia Blake), in particular, does little but act disapprovingly in true stereotypical mother-in-law fashion.
The Boys are Back is a good film but it is frustrating that it is not a great film. As well as the very strong opening and its mostly strong performances, it is beautifully shot by cinematographer Greig Fraser (Last Ride) and the use of the heartbreaking songs by the Icelandic group Sigur Rós is inspired. In fact, while Sigur Rós have featured on other soundtracks before, you do wonder why no other filmamaker had thought about using their very emotive and cinematic music so extensively. The Boys are Back is a good drama but it does leaving you feeling like it could have been so much better.
© Thomas Caldwell, 2009
I pretty much agree with most of your comments. I like Hicks’ work a lot, but this film never really quite soars. In another year, this might have won best film at the AFIs, like last year for example. Or is perhaps comparable in quality to Somersault (which won 13 AFIs). But in a year in which there’s been so many films to stand out, this one doesn’t compare too favourably. It’s still worth-seeing, IMO, but there’s nothing special about it.
Hicks is a filmmaker whom I really admire too. I got to interview him 7 years ago and was impressed by how intelligent and down-to-earth he is.
The Boys Are Back is not a contender in this year’s AFI Awards so will be up for nomination next year. It will be interested to see how it goes in the 2010 awards and, as you say, it will very much depend on the overall quality of Australian cinema that comes out next year.
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