by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The library movie was Romulus, My Father, an incredibly dark coming-of-age tale from Australia supposedly based on the memoirs of writer and philosopher Raimond Gaita, who grew up in the Australian outback in such a monumentally dysfunctional family Augusten Burroughs’ upbringing looks like a model of stability by comparison. During the first half-hour or so of the movie he’s living what looks like a financially stressed but otherwise bucolic existence on a farm owned by his father, Romulus Gaita (Eric Bana, almost unrecognizable as the same actor who so beautifully played the Israelis’ avenging angel in Steven Spielberg’s Munich), but things turn dark in a hurry when we learn the real reason why Raimond’s mother isn’t part of the scene: she’s off in Melbourne living with another guy, Mitru (Russell Dykstra), whose brother Hora (Marton Csokas) comes to visit Romulus and Raimond at the farm and ends up looking after Romulus when he crashes his motorcycle and is severely injured. (One thing that’s readily apparent in this movie is that Australia, being a civilized country, offers health care to its citizens and doesn’t make them worry about a major injury or illness bankrupting them as so often happens here in the U.S., where we enjoy our much-touted “liberty” from the “oppression” of universal health care. It’s disorienting, to say the least, for an American viewer to see people in foreign movies going to hospital when they need to without the obsession Americans have with how the hell they’re ever going to be able to pay for their care.)
The film may be based on a true story, but as my husband Charles said about the film Shine (also set in Australia) the reason the filmmakers — director Richard Roxburgh (a theatrical director making his feature-film debut) and writer Nick Drake (the parallel between this story and the life of the writer’s namesake, the tortured British singer-songwriter of the early 1970’s, is almost unbearable) — picked this true story to film is that it so neatly fits into moviedom’s pet clichés. Raimond’s mom, Christina (Franka Potente), turns up on the farm, and the tension between the four adults reaches such intensity that through much of the movie the kid seems the only sane one of the bunch. Much of the film features standard-issue teenage alienation as filtered through the insanely desperate and isolated life the characters lead — about the only link to normal teenager-dom Raimond has is a phonograph owned by a girl his age and the one record she seems to have, the Australian rock song “Real Wild Child” (though heard here only in Jerry Lee Lewis’s cover — one would think an Australian would have bought the original record by Aussie singer Johnny O’Keefe instead) — and the sheer craziness of all the adult principals, particularly Christina, who’s drawn as a suicidal nymphomaniac who takes overdoses of sleeping pills twice in the film — the first time she’s rescued in time but the second suicide attempt is successful.
Romulus, My Father is the sort of movie you want to like — it’s clearly well directed and well acted (though cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson way overdoes the past-is-brown look) and is attempting to tell an “important” story, its intentions are noble and sophisticated — and yet I found it virtually unwatchable because it’s such a total downer. Even the relatively fleeting pleasures Raimond finds — mostly rowing on the local lake with his dad or (later) one of the other men in his family’s life — don’t add up to much in the way of happiness for him, and it’s only when the final American Graffiti-style where-are-they-now credits roll and we learn that Raimond Gaita became a famous writer and philosopher and wrote the autobiography on which the film is based, that we heave a sigh of relief that he avoided the incarceration in a mental institution for which the film’s events, and in particular the repeated traumas he suffered at the hands of every adult he interacted with, seemed to be preparing him. I’ll give special acknowledgment to the marvelous performance of Kodi Smit-McPhee as the young Raimond — his baby face bears an odd resemblance to the very young Bob Dylan and he’s perfect as the island of sanity in the sea of madness in which his character lives — and though his name is a bit of a tongue-twister I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him get some major credits and follow fellow Aussies Russell Crowe and the late Heath Ledger to big stardom Up Over.