Film Review: The Boys Are Back | Clothes on Film

Posted by Ben McCarthy – January 22, 2010

Starring: Clive Owen, George MacKay, Nicholas McAnulty
Directed By: Scott Hicks

Very few films have tried to capture or even deal with child bereavement and the nature of fatherhood, which is why The Boys Are Back (2010) is so refreshing in its approach. It thrusts the issue right in front of the audience, and will make each father watching re-think his own parental approach.

Based on the memoirs of The Independent political columnist Simon Carr, The Boys Are Back tells the story of Joe (Clive Owen), who has recently lost his wife to cancer and is left to raise his six year-old son by himself. Soon after, his elder son from another marriage travels down to Austraila to live with him. During this time, Joe employs a new parenting style called ‘Free-Range’ which allows his children to do what they please.

Obviously from the synopsis this film could have easily slipped into overly sentimental ground surrounded by clichés that you could tick off a checklist or see coming over the hills from a thousand yards away. But the film skilfully sidesteps all of these obstacles with relative ease. Why? Well mostly because of the source material.

The memoirs by Simon Carr are honest, heartbreaking and at the same time, very funny. Credit to screenwriter Allan Cubitt for not watering down the story into family ‘PG’ territory which would have condescended to its audience, and retaining the honest integrity of the book, which is most welcome.

This film will ultimately divide parents, with mothers rubbing their eyes in disbelief and dads thinking, “Now that’s parenting”. Joe lets his children dive into a very small Jacuzzi, which is only one foot deep and, of course, drive along beach with his child on the hood of the car. It’s surprising child services didn’t take note of this. The film explores the parental nature of fathers; albeit with a light misogynistic view on parenthood, but is done with a deft comic touch so that it never becomes mean-spirited towards the female audience.

The performances are note-perfect; Clive Owen, taking a break from his carrot munching, gun totting and globe trotting action adventures, delivers a performance of such emotional honesty and beauty, but not giving up his macho charisma and presence in the process. George MacKay gives a strong performance as Harry, Joe’s son from another marriage, still feeling that he is responsible for his parents’ divorce, while being a normal teenager in the process.

Then there is litte Nicholas McAnulty, who is extraordinary; he should be in the same line of praise as Max Records from Where The Wild Things Are. (2009) He is only six years-old and that shows, which is a good thing. He says the most incomprehensible things but they mean so much. He is trying to cope with the death of his mother; he can be horrible, he can be sweet or he can anarchic. He has a simple understanding of what is going on, although there are some moments where you think does he actually miss his mother? He gets more upset about not having the crust being cut off his bread than the death of his mother and then he is lying on the floor waiting to pass on so he can be with her. It is a very complex performance but he pulls it off with aplomb.

But no film is completely perfect, which leads to the problems. The death of the mother is quick and horrible, you don’t get know her enough nor the relationship with Joe to really understand her. Due to this, the first 20 minutes of the film are hard to watch and there is an unnecessary bit of nastiness. Whenever there is an emotional scene there is always a small peace of acoustic guitar played to gain an emotional reaction from the audience, which does get grating after a while.

The most cynical viewers will see this as one long promo for the Southern Australian tourist board with beautiful shots by cinematographer Greig Frasher of the golden grass and wildlife in Australia.

This is also reflected in Emily Seresin’s costume design. When the group are in Australia there are plenty of shorts, t-shirts and sandals – don’t forget about the beautiful weather. Then back in England it is rain and misery, accompanied by raincoats, waterproofs and scarves.

Showing that single fathers can become good parents, this is a wonderfully witty and emotional film. Sometimes looks like it will dip into sentimentality, yet avoids this thanks to the rugged charm of Owen and outstanding performances from the boys.

© 2010, Ben McCarthy.