The magnetic masculine energy of Clive Owen—which has always worked so well to endear him to us even when he’s playing a sleazeball or a murderer—operates in reverse in The Boys Are Back. Instead of drawing us in to someone we shouldn’t like, it pushes us away, just a little, from someone we should—which keeps the film from descending into tedious domestic melodrama.
When the wife (Laura Fraser) of Owen’s journalist Joe dies unexpectedly, we suddenly see a man different from the charming, exasperating, ordinary one we’ve just met. He’s snappish with the 6-year-old son, Artie (Nicholas McAnulty), whom he’s left with, and simmering with rage he can’t express— and we put off our empathic grief, too.
And then it shatters, in one of the tiniest, most electric moments I’ve seen on film this year. Joe, who’s living in Australia, calls Harry (George MacKay), his teenage son 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.
Joe compounds his discombulation with sudden single fatherhood by bringing Harry to live with him and Artie.
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. This rebuilding of family means not just figuring out how to be a parent but, who the heck these kids are as people, too.
As Owen takes Joe on an authentic journey through pain and loss, director Scott Hicks gives us one of the loveliest depictions of fatherhood I’ve seen onscreen in ages; it rings with truth but with nary a cliché. That huge lump in the throat at the end of the film is honestly and fairly acquired.
THE BOYS ARE BACK
Clive Owen, George MacKay, Nicholas McAnulty