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George MacKay as Harry, Nicholas McAnulty as Artie, Clive Owen as Joe in he film The Boys Are Back.

© 2008 Miramax Films. All rights reserved.

3 out of 4 stars


The Boys Are Back

  • Directed by Scott Hicks
  • Written by Allan Cubitt
  • Starring Clive Owen and Nicholas McAnulty
  • Classification: PG

The synopsis and trailers for The Boys Are Back are enough to set off a whole set of alarm bells: a newly widowed father, a cute six-year-old son who says precocious things, a postcard-pretty beach setting and that always worrisome phrase "inspired by a true story."

Instead of slipping into sentimental formula, though, this Australian-minted film takes a low-key but refreshingly adult look at issues of grief, work and parenthood. The story of a sportswriter, Joe Warr (Clive Owen), who struggles with the responsibilities of fatherhood after his wife's death is adapted from a 2001 memoir by Simon Carr. There are a some similarities to another recent movie made from a journalist's family chronicle, Marley & Me , and even more connections to Academy Award best picture winner Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), but nothing feels derivative here. The humour and tears feel drawn from life rather than sitcom-land.

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Certainly, this feels like the strongest work from director Scott Hicks ( Hearts in Atlantis , Snow Falling on Cedars ) since his Oscar-winning Shine back in 1996. It's an astute blend of the pretty and the gritty.

Hicks shows his typical fondness for lush images, and Greig Fraser's cinematography of the sun-drenched hills and beaches of South Australia is almost tactile in its richness. The music of Icelandic band Sigur Ros adds an ethereal mood to the movie.

On the tougher side are Allan Cubitt's script, which is good-natured but doesn't idealize any character, and the prickly honesty of Owen's performance as a man who doesn't try to hide his occasional bad temper or that he rubs people the wrong way. Owen, a reliable brooding actor in thrillers, with his flashy blue eyes and seductive smirk, can also convey a boyish innocence. His interplay with young actor Nicholas McAnulty is casually friendly rather than cloying. In an opening sequence, we see him racing his car on the beach, getting yelled at by various sunbathers. Only when the camera pulls back do we see the reason for their concern: His six-year-old son Artie is riding on the hood of the car.

That's the prelude to a long flashback, in which we learn the details of Joe's marriage to Katy (Laura Fraser), who suddenly became ill and soon succumbed to cancer. Caught in mid-career, the cocky, workaholic, hard-drinking and frequently travelling Joe finds himself overwhelmed by the unfamiliar business of running a household and raising a child. Just as he starts to barely get the hang of it - with the help and sometimes criticism of his mother-in-law (Julia Blake) and a divorced mother of one of Artie's classmates (Emma Booth) - he encounters a new problem.

Joe has a teenaged son, Harry (George MacKay), from a previous marriage in London. At his mother's urging, Harry comes to visit Joe, and it soon becomes apparent that he may want to stay, once he comes to terms with Joe abandoning him years before. Soon, Joe's "hog heaven" style of housekeeping and bad temper lead to bigger conflicts and Joe's gradual owning up to his responsibilities.

For all its generally judicious choices, there's one device in The Boys Are Back that may test the patience of some viewers. Every once in a while, the late Katy pops up in a scene to offer Joe wifely advice. (Yes, she thinks he should buy a convertible.) The idea is to evoke the imaginary dialogues people continue to have with deceased loved ones, but the physical presence of a ghost in the scenes can't help but feel hokey. In the memorable words of songwriter Dan Hicks - how can I miss you when you won't go away?

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