TBAB posterScott Hicks returns to the South Australian sun for his latest film The Boys Are Back, and echos his greatest commercial triumph, the David Helfgott biopic Shine, with this family in transition drama. Clive Owen leads the film as a recently widowed sports writer and father to two boys, Artie (Nicholas McAnulty) who lives with him in Australia and Harry, his child from a previous marriage who is ensconced at an English boarding school, played by George MacKay. While this road has been walked before Hicks and Owen combine to create a poignant film which maintains an original voice despite the crowded arena.

Dealing with the tragic, early death of his wife (Laura Fraser)and the onslaught of parental responsibility Joe Warr (Owen) retreats into his grief with a stoic facade and the creation of what he considers to be the best environment for his young son: Hog’s Heaven. Slowly the threads holding his life together unravel as he struggles to maintain a bond with his child as he resolves to be a father to his boy despite the erosion of his treasured, and very male, image of himself as the man of the house.

Coping well the family home is turned upside down, literally and figuratively by the arrival of Warr’s teenage son, Harry. The film speaks volumes about the bonds of fathers and sons, the crisis of male identity in the three stages of life and how to pick up the precious components of a broken life, and Hicks places a great deal of trust in Clive Owen to be the emotional centre around which this film orbits. It is faith well placed as Owen has a depth and subtlety rarely seen in his body of work as a man who boundaries and responsibilities are clearly defined and founded on the presence, and then absence, of his wife.

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While the film’s introduction of the older son allows another dimension of Warr’s emotionally tortured journey to reveal itself it does threaten to knock the film off balance as the profusion of relationships Warr has to contend with overwhelms the main arc of the story. The question of how to fill the void left by someone so important to your life is not answered and that is just as it should be, a happy, manufactured ending would betray the tenderness and gravity of the preceding events. This is a series of grief stricken vignettes; each episode is a slow step on a path to recovery and the understated performances, particularly of the young boys, and the sun bleached shots of the varied Australian landscapes evoke a strong response.

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This is a brave look at the minutiae of the recovery process of becoming a single parent in sudden and heart-rending circumstances, and a realistic tone is well realised with a smart script by Allan Cubitt adapting Simon Carr’s novel and the grounded performances and sensitive dynamics by the cast, particulate the three male leads. At times painful, this film only occasionally strays into familiar territory with a third act dilemma which appears crafted to elicit a particular conclusion, but there is a hopeful undercurrent which is given the chance to bloom by the film’s end and serves to honour the heart breaking scenes which came before.

Hicks’s direction is assured and uses the economy of silence to tell a deep and soulful story with respect for the audience, and the subject matter. The most powerful moments occur when the questioning has abated and the tears have dried, and the total absence, the loss of the anchor, is made clear. The Boys are Back is a film told beautifully and with great integrity, achieving a emotional richness that will stay with you.

The Boys are Back is released in the UK on the 15th of January 2010.