It’s funny how the movies will change a person. Consider Simon Carr, a political columnist for Britain’s The Independent, whom former Prime Minister Tony Blair once called “the most vicious sketch writer working in Britain today.” (A sketch writer is a kind of Parliamentary verbal cartoonist.)
Yet it’s not his scabrous political opinions that bring Carr to the screen, but a touching memoir he wrote about his life as a widowed father raising his young son and older boy from a previous marriage. The book, with the Thin Lizzyish title The Boys are Back in Town, is a sort of wry parenting manual for the hopelessly messy. It is the inspiration of the lovely film The Boys are Back, directed by Australian Scott Hicks (Shine). Through cinematic alchemy, the paunchy, balding Carr has been transformed into impossibly handsome Clive Owen, who plays Joe Warr, an English sportswriter living in Australia.
Joe’s beloved ex-equestrian wife (Laura Fraser) dies of cancer, leaving Joe alone to raise 6-year-old Artie (Nicolas McAnulty). Overwhelmed by his unaccustomed responsibilities and Artie’s inconsolable grief, Joe determines to say “yes” to every childish request, no matter how silly or inconvenient, and to approach housekeeping with casual indifference. Let Artie steer the truck? Yes! Can he put on wet clothes directly from the clothesline? Why not?
The increasingly disheveled all-male household is expanded when Joe’s adolescent son, Harry (George MacKay), who lives in England with Joe’s ex-wife, joins them, bringing along a case of culture shock and unresolved feelings of paternal abandonment.
The movie is achingly sad at times, and in lesser hands might have been a mawkish mess. But there is exceptional talent at work here. Allan Cubitt’s screenplay preserves much of Carr’s real-life dialogue and is subtle enough to make events like the occasional reappearance of Joe’s dead wife seem completely natural. Owen’s taciturn demeanor is well suited to a man trying to keep his emotions under control, McAnulty is cheekily adorable without being cloying, and MacKay is persuasive as conflicted prep-schooler Harry. Scott Gray’s rhythmic editing is remarkably effective, and cinematographer Greig Fraser, who also made Jane Campion's Bright Star so pretty, paints the Australian countryside with a lively, luminous palette.