It’s hard to believe we haven’t seen Clive Owen in a movie like this one before. We’re so used to seeing him as tough-guy cops and hardass assassins that it comes as something of a stunner to meet his Joe Warr, English sports journalist living in Australia, an adoring husband and loving father and… nothing else. He’s not secretly a spy or anything. He’s just an ordinary man — charming, funny, wise-cracking, a bit exasperating at times — but ordinary. And it’s a lovely reminder of what a cinematic treasure Owen is: his palpable charisma, which has always worked so well to endear him to us even when it probably shouldn’t, as when he’s playing a sleazeball or a murderer, works even better when we’re already inclined to sympathize with him.
It’s ironic, actually, because that magnetic masculine energy of Owen’s (Duplicity, The International) works in The Boys Are Back in the reverse way here than it usually does: instead of drawing us in to someone we shouldn’t like, it pushes us away, just a little, from someone we should, at least at first… which keeps the film from descending into the tedious domestic melodrama it could so easily have been. When that wife that he worships (Laura Fraser) dies unexpectedly, we’re not left merely with the sadness of the situation to engage our pity: we suddenly meet a different Joe, one who’s snappish with the six-year-old son, Artie (Nicholas McAnulty), he’s left with, and one who withdraws into himself… though always one with the simmering rage we’ve come to expect of Owen. It’s as if we are asked to put off our empathic grief as Joe puts off his own anguish.
And then it shatters, in one of the tiniest, most electric moments I’ve seen on film this year: Joe calls his elder son, teen Harry (George MacKay: Defiance, Tsunami: The Aftermath), from a previous marriage, who’s still living in England with his mother. While he’s on the phone with the kid, passing on the news that Joe’s wife has died, Owen gives us a peek at what is roiling inside Joe, as he almost has a breakdown and then bottles it up again.
It’s the beginning of a new Joe, as he decides to get his life back on track, though in the most questionable of ways: he compounds his discombulation with sudden single fatherhood by bringing Harry to live with him and Artie, too. The boys have never even met, and Joe’s work meant he was barely around for Artie, never mind for Harry half a planet away: it means not just figuring out how to be a parent but who the heck these kids are as people, too. “I think you’re making a big mistake,” his mother-in-law tells him. “Wouldn’t be the first time,” Joe replies, but with a grin of anticipation for the adventure it’s going to be.
Credit to screenwriter Allan Cubitt, adapting Simon Carr’s based-on-his-own-true-story novel [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.], for contributing to the magnificently off-putting feeling that we’re at war with ourselves over whether we should like Joe or not: for revealed only slowly are the circumstances surrounding Joe’s abandoning of Harry and his mother for his new family in Australia, which leaves you wondering, for a little while, what kind of huge jerk this guy is, and if he deserves our regard. He does, of course, because Owen makes him deserve it, in the authentic journey through pain and loss he takes Joe through in the process of rebuilding his family. Joe’s relationship with the boys is one of the loveliest depictions of fatherhood I’ve seen onscreen in ages — it rings with truth but with nary a cliché. There’s real chemistry between Owen and MacKay, but especially with the delightful McAnulty, who is as rambunctious and realistic a child ever captured onscreen… and from whom director Scott Hicks (No Reservations, Hearts in Atlantis) elicits one of the frankest depictions of a child’s anger cinema has seen.
Maybe the highest compliment I can give The Boys Are Back is this: that huge lump in my throat at the end of the film was honestly and fairly acquired, and entirely welcome.
Watch The Boys Are Back online using LOVEFiLM‘s streaming service.