A movie that opens with a scene that amounts to child endangerment—in this case, a man speeding down a beach with a young boy sitting on the hood of his car while people shout at him to stop—immediately has something going for it. And although “The Boys Are Back” occasionally gives way to director Scott Hicks’s inclination to go for the emotional jugular (this is the man who made “Shine,” after all), for the most part it’s a tearjerker that works, largely due to the subtlety of the performances.
Based on a memoir by Simon Carr, the screenplay by Alan Cubitt is a tale of unconventional fatherhood based on two failed marriages—the first ending in divorce, and the second in the death of a much-loved second wife. Joe Warr (Clive Owen), a sportswriter in Australia, is the unlucky husband. And there’s a son from each union. The older, teenaged Harry (George MacKay) lives with his mother, a violinist, in London, and from our first glimpses of him, he’s very unhappy. The other, six-year old Artie (Nicholas McAnulty), is too young to realize what his mother’s death actually means, but begins acting out in frustration, prompting Joe’s mother-in-law (Julia Blake) to suggest he should perhaps live with her and his grandfather.
Much of the first section of the picture deals with Joe trying to come to terms with his wife Katy’s sudden death while attempting to be a good father to Artie while doing his job, even though his permissive attitude toward child-rearing raises some eyebrows. The odds against him increase, however, when Harry shows up for a visit, altering the family dynamic further. And after Joe’s editor insists that he go off to cover a big international competition in person and his attempt to cover it surreptitiously via computer fail, he decides to leave Harry and Artie home alone—a choice that has unhappy consequences.
There are elements of “The Boys Are Back” that veer into maudlin territory. The most obvious is the device of having the dead Katy (Laura Fraser) appear posthumously to Joe at some points to offer advice and encouragement. (One might also quibble with what amount to a montage showing her illness and death, which can’t hold a patch to the opening sequence in “Up.”) And in the last act, set in London, the picture give in to a tendency to gild the lily somewhat, with the characterization of Joe’s ex-wife a mite too brusque. But in general Cubitt and Hicks steer away from the blatantly manipulative, despite what must have been an almost irresistible incentive to do so. More often than not, their treatment, though varnished and smooth (a fact accentuated by Greig Fraser’s luxuriant widecreen cinematography) and undoubtedly somewhat sanitized, retains at least an underlying kernel of emotional truth. It’s refreshing, for example, that the relationship Joe develops with a pleasant neighbor (Emma Booth) doesn’t go as one would expect. And even his interaction with his in-laws has a nicely modulated quality.
But the sense of genuineness arises particularly from the three lead performances. Owen, who of late has seemed less of a reliable leading man than he once did, gives one of his richest, most nuanced performances, generating real warmth as well as the usual smoldering charisma. But his turn, as good as it is, would be for nothing if the boys didn’t complement it so beautifully. McAnulty moves ably from joy to sullen petulance, and MacKay manages to express both Harry’s skittish bravado and his simmering vulnerability. The supporting cast is fine, with Blake coming off particularly well. But it’s the boys who carry “The Boys.”
This is a film that could easily have succumbed to the approach that dooms most tearjerkers. That it doesn’t is testimony to the good judgment—and good taste—of everyone involved.