SYDNEY (Hollywood Reporter) - No one could accuse Aussie actor Richard Roxburgh of being a chicken.
For his directing debut, he has tackled a hard-sell downer of a tale about a migrant family living a hardscrabble existence in the Australian bush near the end of World War II.
Incredibly, much like the great Shakespearean tragedies, “Romulus, My Father” manages to transcend a wretched pileup of calamities -- suicide, infidelity, madness -- and emerge as a work of melancholic beauty.
Credit unfaltering performances by Eric Bana, Franka Potente and limpid-eyed newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee, as well as Roxburgh’s decision to echo the restraint of the stripped-back memoir upon which the drama is based.
“Romulus” is a beacon of sensitive filmmaking in what lately has been a fairly bleak local landscape. Its raw emotional power also could translate effortlessly to an international art house audience.
The memoir of Australian moral philosopher Raimond Gaita, adapted for the screen by poet Nick Drake, recounts a childhood uneasily balanced between the hard-working integrity of his father and the erratic behavior of his chronically promiscuous mother.
Smit-McPhee plays Rai as an 8-year-old, who suffers through more than a little boy should.
His beautiful mother, Christina (Potente), treats their bare-bones home in country Victoria like a hotel, dropping in unannounced whenever one of her big-city affairs peters out.
Romulus (Bana) is a poor blacksmith from Eastern Europe struggling to scrape together a living in an often-hostile environment. His great love for his wife lends him a capacity for forgiveness that is saint-like.
He’s not a saint, of course, but he’s a good man and -- barring the odd violent explosion of pent-up emotion -- provides a strong role model for his son.
The screenplay is frugal with dialogue, and positively stingy with exposition.
Roxburgh, who has had success as a stage director, makes terrific use of stillness and is a master at just letting his characters be.
The expressive silences between father and son are companionable, then strained as Christina’s casual infidelities and reckless neglect of her family take their toll.
Letters from his absent wife turn up at the farm sporadically, each one a fresh assault on Romulus’ heart.
Bana is a soulful actor and his stricken looks cut deep as Romulus learns that Christina has hooked up with his good friend Mitru (Russell Dykstra), then that she’s moving in with him, and later that she’s having his baby.
Cracks start to show in Romulus’ stoicism; pushed to the limit after hosting Christina and her new lover in his home, a suicidal burst of speed on his motorbike leaves him in hospital with a broken leg. The arrival of baby Susan plunges the unstable Christina into a debilitating depression and puts further weight on Rai’s young shoulders as he steps in to look after his half-sister.
Two suicides and a crushing betrayal finally get the better of Romulus, and his descent into madness leaves the child stripped of the buffer that shielded him from the hardest knocks.
This laundry list of affliction sounds heavy going. Yet it is a testament to the talent involved that “Romulus” emerges as a strangely uplifting tale of a rock-solid father-son bond.
Lightening the load are exuberant bursts of gallantry, from stalwart family friend, Hora (a terrific Marton Csokas), and humor, from a hobo pal (Jacek Koman) with an unconventional way of cooking eggs.
The subject matter might be weighty and often painful, but the film is truly beautiful watch.
The period detail is flawless but not overt. And, while cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson bathes everything in a tawny glow, the sparse-leaved gums and scattered granite boulders give the landscape a haunting austerity.
Romulus: Eric Bana
Christina: Franka Potente
Hora: Marton Csokas
Rai: Kodi Smit-McPhee
Mitru: Russell Dykstra
Vacek: Jacek Koman
Director: Richard Roxburgh; Screenwriter: Nick Drake; Producers: Robert Connolly, John Maynard; Executive producers: Andrew Myer, Gary Hamilton, Victor Syrmis; Director of photography: Geoffrey Simpson; Production designer: Robert Cousins; Music: Basil Hogios; Costume designer: Jodie Fried; Editor: Suresh Ayyar.