Romulus, My Father (Australia, 2007)
Distilled to its essence, Romulus, My Father is a standard-order coming-of-age movie. Like most movies of this sort, it's based on someone's memoirs (in this case, those of Raimond Gaita) and includes moment of tragedy, sentimentality, and serenity. All the things one expects of a coming-of-age story can be found in Romulus, My Father. In fact, the movie is so familiar it's impossible to shake the pervasive sense of d?j? vu. It may be that the particulars of this story are new but the overall trajectory is well known to anyone with an understanding of the genre. That's not to say that Romulus, My Father is poorly made. Quite the contrary - this is a workmanlike motion picture with solid performances. It's just that the superior production values are used in service of a mediocre storyline.
The film is seen through the eyes of Raimond (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who's ten years old when the movie begins. His father, Romulus (Eric Bana), and mother, Christina (Franka Potente), are immigrants to Australia from Germany. They do not live together, although Christina visits frequently to see her son and share Romulus' bed. She has another life and a family with Mitru (Russell Dyktstra), the brother of Romulus' best friend, Hora (Marton Csokas). Eventually, Christina has a daughter with Mitru and no longer visits the farm where Romulus and Raimond live. In order to keep in touch with his mother, Raimond spends his summers with her. Christina is not a well woman, however. We witness her gradual mental deterioration as depression dims her once bright spirit. Worse for Raimond, his mother's descent triggers an almost sympathetic reaction in Romulus, who ends up in a mental hospital. (One must remember that mental hospitals in the early 1960s, when this movie takes place, were not the most humane of environments.)
The narrative has a fractured feel and is more like a series of vignettes than a cohesive whole. This is what one might anticipate from a movie based on a memoir. Adults writing about their childhoods see events through the prism of elapsed time and some things are clearer than others. Such is the case here. Seemingly minor events, such as when Raimond hears Jerry Lee Lewis for the first time, stand out while many of the details of Romulus and Christina's murky relationship remain unclear. It's also never apparent exactly when Christina's insanity takes root. As in real life, such moments are difficult to pinpoint, even when examined in retrospect.
The acting is one of Romulus, My Father's strengths. Both Eric Bana and Franka Potente give strong performances as the estranged parents of the central character. Each has a significant emotional range to cover since their characters go through dramatic changes. Kodi Smit-McPhee proves able to share the camera with both of the more experienced thespians and never seem out of place or beyond his depth. He's as good as one could reasonably expect from any young actor.
Actor-turned-filmmaker Richard Roxburgh achieves the feel of a period piece through little details like the use of a bulky radio, black-and-white snapshots, and the absence of post-'60s technology. Nevertheless, because so much of the movie takes place in relative isolation, there's a timeless quality. This story could have transpired almost anywhere at any time before modern forms of communication collapsed distances. The kind of isolation depicted in Romulus, My Father is rare today in a way that it once wasn't.
However, for all that it's well made and expertly acted, the film keeps its audience at arm's length, letting viewers observe without offering an emotional portal of entrance. The best coming-of-age stories make us participants in the discovery process of the young protagonist, but that's not the case here. Most of Raimond's tribulations have been endured by other movie characters enacting other memoirs. There's nothing sufficiently different or interesting about Raimond's life to make it worth committing to film, no matter how sincere the efforts are of those involved. Anyone with a special fondness for coming-of-age stories may find Romulus, My Father to be an adequate representation of the structure and development one expects from such a film. Viewers hoping for a richer and more fulfilling experience may find that this production does not offer enough that's significantly different for that desire to be met.
Romulus, My Father (Australia, 2007)
Cast: Eric Bana, Franka Potente, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Marton Csokas, Russell Dykstra
Screenplay: Nick Drake, based on the memoir by Raimond Gaita
Cinematography: Geoffrey Simpson
Music: Basil Hogios
U.S. Distributor: Magnolia Pictures