Romulus, My Father

I always cheer when an Australian actor who’s hit the big-time in Hollywood returns home, especially when it’s for a locally financed production. If the movie’s actually good, then I’m on Cloud Nine. And Romulus, My Father is certainly very, very good.

Marking the directorial debut of stalwart Aussie actor Richard Roxburgh, Romulus, My Father adapts renowned philosopher Raimond Gaita’s much-loved memoir about his painful upbringing in 1960s Victoria by immigrant parents Romulus and Christina, here played by Eric Bana and Franka Potente. As the film begins the family is already fracturing, as Christina’s mental illness causes her to detach from her husband and son and take up with family friend Mitru (Russell Dykstra). Devoted Romulus quietly permits this, although his love for his wife continues unabated. Both parents are scarred by their own upbringings in war-torn Europe, hindering the family from connecting to each other in a meaningful fashion, and so we follow Raimond, played superbly by Kodi Smit-MacPhee without a hint of preciousness, as he tries to understand a tragedy that encompasses but predates him.

There haven’t been too many films about the Australian ethnic immigrant experience, and Romulus, My Father strives to illuminate the difficulties of voluntary assimilation when coupled with deep personal trauma. Although beautifully shot, this is predominantly an actor’s film – no surprise given that Roxburgh is at the helm – and the choice pays off handsomely. In lieu of a sense of historical sweep we are deeply embedded with some beautiful performances, with Potente giving one of her best as Christina and Bana following up Munich in grand fashion. Dykstra and Marton Csokas as loyal friend and fellow immigrant Hora ably support them, but Kodi Smit-MacPhee is the heart of the film, and Roxburgh’s acting experience allows him to draw a touching and complex turn from this young and relatively inexperienced actor. It’s one of the most sophisticated and intelligent young adult performances in quite some time, and could help the film in its broader success even more than the presence of Bana and Potente.

This is another delightful entry in Australia’s great film streak of the last couple of years; let’s hope that other overseas successes like Bana and Roxburgh also return home to tell Australian stories.

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