Massey’s movie man launches NZ classic film series

Dr Brian McDonnell with this book on In My Father's Den, the first in a new series on New Zealand film classics

Book cover

New Zealand cinema is established enough to merit a series of books each dedicated to a movie deemed a local classic, and Massey University cinema expert Dr Brian McDonnell has written the first, In My Father’s Den, adapted from the novel of the same name by Maurice Gee.

In his painstakingly researched and copiously illustrated analysis of the film, he explores both the 1972 novel and the process by which scriptwriter/director the late Brad McGann took the book’s core and made it his own.

His book launches the New Zealand Film Classics series of short texts published by boutique UK publisher Kakapo Books, which specialises in New Zealand material.

He considers the 2004 film to be “one of the boldest and most radical adaptations of a classic New Zealand novel” and hopes his thorough analysis will affirm why he and other film specialists consider it “an undisputed classic of New Zealand cinema” for its intelligent, perceptive script and sublime cinematography.

He says the film exudes an “austere, chilly beauty” in its nuanced, sensitive depiction of the relationship between Paul Prior (British actor Matthew Macfadyen) and Celia Steimer (New Zealand actor Emily Barclay).

A dark story reimagined for cinema

Set in Central Otago, the film revolves around disillusioned war journalist Paul Prior whose return home is blighted when he becomes implicated in the mysterious disappearance of a teenage girl he has befriended.

In his re-working of the novel, scriptwriter/director Brad McGann made dramatic shifts in time, setting and characterisation, says Dr McDonnell, a senior lecturer in the School of English and Media Studies at the Auckland campus in Albany. 

In the script, written 30 years after the book was published, Mr McGann moves the story from West Auckland to the South Island, updating it by reimagining the core ideas and central characters. The main female character, Celia, in particular, is more mature and prominent in the film, while Paul Prior, a teacher in the novel and a war journalist who becomes a teacher in the film, is perhaps “the most complex character of any New Zealand film,” says Dr McDonnell.

Peering into the NZ psyche

“What he [McGann] really liked was the depth of character [in the novel], and he thought it was a great example of the potential of the New Zealand psyche – there’s a promise of change, a seed of a better, kinder way of living.”

The book is in part a tribute to Brad McGann, who Dr McDonnell spoke to in 2005 for a series of taped interviews. He was unaware that the director – who had so impressed the New Zealand film industry with his highly accomplished first feature film – was seriously ill. Brad McGann died two years later in his early forties from bowel cancer. For the film world his death marked a significant loss of artistic potential by an emerging talent who spent 10 years in Australia, including some years studying film in Melbourne, before returning to New Zealand.

The film is not an example of “in one eye and out the other” light entertainment, says Dr McDonnell, who defines it as “a serious, intelligent analysis of the New Zealand character. It’s a rather unblinking view of how tough, and how difficult, family life can be. Brad said family life could be like a war zone.”

Throughout its darker palette and themes, the film is softened with “some very sweet moments”, he says, including a birthday party scene that showcases an unparalleled artistic beauty, shot by renowned New Zealand cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh.

The film became one of the top ten earners at the New Zealand box office, and won international awards in Canada, Spain, France and the United States.

In My Father’s Den is available online from the publisher. One or two new books in the series will be published yearly, written by local and international academics and other specialists in the field. Among films already chosen to be part of the series are: Heavenly Creatures, Came a Hot Friday, Whale Rider, Out of the Blue, Rain, The Piano, Boy, Rewi’s Last Stand, Once Were Warriors, An Angel at My Table, Ngati, Broken Barrier, Sleeping Dogs, Sons for the Return Home, Smash Palace, Bad Blood and No.2.

This is Dr McDonnell’s fourth book about film, his best-known previous work being the Greenwood Press Encyclopaedia of Film Noir, which he co-wrote with Australian film scholar Geoff Mayer in 2007.

Read more about Kakapo Books here.

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