Monday, April 01, 2019

On the Rails of Human Perception

We all know how the world works, or we think we do. Misunderstandings based on natural errors as well as some based on lifelong ideas about how the world works tragically dominate the events portrayed in 2004's In My Father's Den. The first and only film from New Zealand director Brad McGann, who died of cancer in 2007, it presents a complex and mysterious family drama filled with as many perceptual errors as some of Shakespeare's best plays and to some of the same effect as far as insight into human nature.

Paul (Matthew Macfadyen) returns home to New Zealand after years away, having been pursuing a career as a war photographer to great, if traumatic, success. He returns because his father has passed away and he reunites with his brother, Andrew (Colin Moy), and Andrew's quiet wife, Penny (Miranda Otto).

In the large den their father kept separate from the house, Paul peruses a vast collection of literature and other fondly remembered memorabilia from his childhood. He goes back to the den alone regularly until one day he encounters there a teenage girl named Celia (Emily Barclay). At first he's angry at the intrusion of this girl into his sanctum but gradually befriends her. It turns out she's the daughter of his childhood sweetheart, Jackie (Jodie Rimmer).

At what point does Paul learn this information? The standard structure of cinematic narrative implies that he figures it out when he sees a particular bracelet Jackie is wearing. But this film, like Vertigo, plays on the audience's accustomed ways of receiving and interpreting information as much as it does the characters'. I noticed even the synopsis on Wikipedia reflects presumptions not necessarily supported by the film.

All of these misapprehensions would be merely curiosities except for the devastating effects they have on people's lives. People have what seem like perfectly natural reasons for their presumptions--secret photographs found in a desk drawer, the visible evidence of abuse, indications in conversation of consciously or unconsciously repressed memories. But the natural presumptions of what pieces of evidence mean constantly clash with an even more natural reality. It happens on large scale and small--the whole town starts to seem like an angry mob as newspaper headlines present a predictable interpretation of a man's friendship with a young girl while individuals privy to more information make decisions based on moral interpretations or inferences about someone else's moral interpretations.

I'm being vague because it's important for the first time viewer to be allowed to make their interpretations as the story unfolds. The performances are very good and the film makes wonderful use of songs by Patti Smith and Mazzy Star. Best of all is the balancing act McGann achieves throughout, weaving an improbably complex story to evoke an all too credible sense of human error.

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