Memoir

Deep connections, artistic inevitabilities

FOUR YEARS AFTER the release of the film adaptation of Romulus, My Father, it still feels strange to refer to the characters in the film as characters rather than as real people – to Romulus but not to my father, to Christina but not to my mother, and to Rai but not to me.

Readers of the book are often intrigued to know what I think of the film. I am glad to be able to say that I think that director, Richard Roxburgh, made a film of heartrending power and delicate beauty, with fine, sometimes superb, performances from the cast. It is beautifully photographed and directed with eloquent restraint. I admire Richard's integrity in refusing to flatter his audience, or to look over his shoulder at what critics might say.

When my wife, Yael, and I first saw it in a rough cut with only one of the producers, John Maynard, in the theatre with us, we cried almost throughout. After the screening we drove from Melbourne to our house in the country, where we met up with John and his son Billy. Yael and I spoke not a word to each other on that drive and we found it hard to converse with John and Billy over dinner.

The film premiered in Castlemaine. Or rather, that was where it had its 'world premiere': an 'Australian' premiere was to follow in Melbourne a few days later. A small platform was erected in front of the cinema, and Eric Bana, who played Romulus, spoke, as well as Richard, the screenwriter and others. When it was my turn, I suddenly realised that I was looking at a spot, only three or so metres directly in front of me, where my father parked his motorbike when we went from Frogmore, our house, to the 'pictures'. There, I remembered, he dressed me in a greatcoat that trailed a couple feet on the ground, after having first put newspapers to my chest, and a leather hat and goggles on my head. To my embarrassment he did this in front of the crowd who stood on the footpath talking after the end of the film.

 

FOR A VERY long time I did not want the book to be adapted to film. I had many offers, at least twelve, which my agent, Margaret Connolly, declined on my behalf. Because she knew that I had no interest in the prospect – that I was suspicious of the very idea of it – she sometimes told me only a month or so after it happened that so and so (often a distinguished director) had asked for the film rights. One day, early in January 1999, she phoned me to say that a young actor and theatre director in Sydney had persistently phoned her to ask for the rights. He was, she said, popular for his Hamlet at the Belvoir Street Theatre in 1995. She asked if she could give him my phone number in London. Knowing how she had previously responded to people asking for the rights, I was impressed. Let him have my number, I told her.

Within a day or so Richard rang – from Africa, I think – and asked if he could visit me in London. I told him I would prefer that he didn't, because if he came all that way I would feel that I owed him something. He would come nonetheless, he said. And he did, to my flat in London, on a cold January night, dressed in jeans, a white cable-knit pullover and a leather jacket, and holding two bottles of red wine.

I had expected someone cool in a slick sort of way, someone I wouldn't like. Instead, he was straightforward, intense and charming. I was impressed by his love of the book and by his desire to direct a film true to it. Even so, I told him that I would not give him the rights. Ever resourceful, he asked if I would at least allow him to write a screenplay. If I didn't like it, then we would go no further.

It would be mean-spirited to refuse such a modest request, I thought. He had, after all, travelled to London from Africa, and we had drunk his very good wine.

In the event Richard couldn't write the screenplay, and we began searching for a screenwriter.

 

FIVE YEARS AFTER Richard had turned up at the door of my flat in London, we still did not have a screenplay, though we had declined a few. By that time Robert Connolly and John Maynard had agreed to produce the film, but I had not yet signed a contract. I was not prepared to do so until I had reason to believe that I could trust the screenwriter. Then, on a trip to London, Robert discovered Nick Drake, an English poet born of Czech and English parents. Because I thought of the book as a tragic poem rather than a biography, I had always wanted the screenwriter to be a poet with a European sensibility. Nick had not written a screenplay before but was a 'script doctor' with a distinguished film company, working on, among others, the screenplay to Anthony Minghella's The English Patient.

The circumstances of our early discussion made a difference to our friendship and therefore, I think, to the screenplay. Not long after I met Nick Drake severe back pain put me to bed for two weeks. Nick came twice to visit. As he was about to leave the second time, he nervously handed me a book of his poems, The Man in the White Suit. 'I hope you like these,' he said. 'I don't know what we will do if you don't.'

We had already agreed that he should write the screenplay.

Stoked up on anti-inflammatories and strong painkillers, I was suffering visual disturbances and could barely think, but I read the poems straightaway. Some moved me to tears. A week later I read them again and responded as I had before. I had been right to want a poet to write the screenplay, and Nick was that poet.

He wrote the screenplay that I trusted he would. It was courageous, understated but the more emotionally powerful for it, and poetic. Together with the cinematography of Geoffrey Simpson, it ensured that the film is visual and dramatic poetry. It enabled Richard to direct a film with the same qualities and gave its principal actors (Eric Bana, Franka Potente as Christina, Kodi Smit-McPhee as Rai) roles that have, I think, proved to be among their best.

It was not that Nick laid down tracks that Richard had merely to follow – Nick often told me that I had to imagine how the spaces between the sentences, sometimes just between the words, would be filled with images and sound. I had especially to understand how eloquent the silences could be. I tended, incorrigibly, to read it as though it was a play. It wasn't until I saw the film that I realised just how little dialogue was in it and what a gift it was for a director.

Richard honoured it consummately. Not a word is spoken in the relatively long opening scene because, Richard said, he intended to alert the audience from the beginning that this was a film in which silence matters. And strange though it may seem, given that I had read every draft, I was shocked to realise that Rai occupies most of the screen time. The book is sometimes described as an autobiography. I resist that, in part because I had tried as much as possible to keep myself out of the story. But Rai is at the centre of the film –not alone there, but there nonetheless.

 

MY CONTRACT WAS of the usual sort that, justifiably, gives the writer of the book few rights. It permitted me to comment on every stage of the screenplay and to have those comments considered. But there was an understanding between Robert, John, Richard, Nick and me that my comments on each draft of the screenplay would be taken seriously. I commented in detail on four drafts and discussed two of them at length with Nick in London. Sometimes I commented on trivial details (that the ice creams should be Eskimo Pies); sometimes on structural matters (that Romulus should be involved with Lydia before Christina kills herself); and always on how the characters were drawn (only at the eleventh hour did we get Hora right).

When I look back to that time I realise that although I knew in my head that I had to let go of the story I had written, it took some time, if indeed it ever happened, for me to know it in my heart.

Richard was determined that when the audience saw the opening sequences of the film, they would not think 'period film'. Bob Cousins, a genius at his job, oversaw the construction and furnishing of the Frogmore house in the film. The house in the film is almost exactly like the one in which my father and I lived. Some details were changed. The bedroom, for example, has an extra window to allow more light for filming. The original house had burned down, and the film house was built only fifty metres from where it had stood. It wasn't built on the original site, because that was surrounded by trees and Richard wanted long shots of the house, unobscured. Only the small dam into which Rai throws the razor (the actual dam into which I threw my father's razor) separated the film house from the remains of Frogmore. The wrought-iron furniture in the film was made by my father, loaned to the filmmakers by people in the area who had responded to advertisements in local papers.

Bob relied on photographs of Frogmore, and on my descriptions of it and its interior. He emailed me in London, asking whether I could remember more of the interior than I had described in the book and also the household objects that filled it. I sat down at nine o'clock one morning to jot down notes. I finished at three in the afternoon, astonished at what I could remember. I also sent Bob sketches of the egg-washing machine that my father built. When I had finished I went out. I was so emotionally drained that I could hardly put one foot in front of the other.

I was in London when the house was built. My daughter Katie saw it and described it to me on the phone. 'You'll cry when you see it,' she said. A few weeks later, before shooting had started, I went there with Yael. Remembering Katie's words, I steeled myself. I didn't cry, but just as I congratulated myself on the achievement, I caught sight, through the corner of my right eye, of a white cockatoo perched in a tree in which Jack, our cockatoo, often sat. That undid me.

 

SEVEN YEARS HAD elapsed between the evening when Richard came to my flat in London and the first day of the shoot, on the Moolort Plains in March 2006.

The film was shot entirely on location; everyone lived there during the week. Arriving on set before dawn and leaving after dark can be gruelling, but it can have sublime compensations. Each day the cast and crew saw the sun rise and set over the harsh but beautiful landscape of Central Victoria, experienced its many moods, and grew to love it. Wonderful though his cinematography would anyhow have been, this must have helped Geoffrey Simpson to reveal the landscape as another character, as Richard had always wanted. And it makes a difference to know that you are filming where the story happened: Romulus walked through these paddocks to work; Christina along this desolate track after she tried to kill herself; and Rai threw his father's beloved razor into this dam, just there, where it still lies rusting.

Virtually all the crew read my book. I was flattered, but more importantly I was moved and consoled by the knowledge that the film would be, in every detail, a work of love.

The last sentence of the screenplay reads, 'Romulus, with a strong, confident cast of his hand, frees them [the bees], blurring and mixing, into the sunlight of a fine bush dawn.' Not too confidently, I said to Eric before the shooting started, when we discussed my father, my mother, Mitru and the characters that bear their names in the film. I saw that he understood. The film ends, rightly, in the key of hope, but it offers no assurances that the hope will be fulfilled, that Romulus will become whole again. That is how it was with the real Romulus at that time. In the closing moments of the film Eric captures the weariness and the pain that almost extinguished this hope, and the uncertain future, with a poignancy that I doubt could be equalled. The film ends at the place where my father's long journey to recovery began.

 

WHEN I FIRST saw the film, finished and on the big screen at a preview in Melbourne, I did so with a couple of hundred other people. Many of them came to me afterwards visibly moved and also anxious about how I felt. Many wondered how I bore to sit through it. It was indeed harrowing, even more so for my sister Susan who sat next to me.

Two things about the film have caused me pain.

The book covers the entire period of my father's life. The film covers events that occurred over roughly seven years from 1956 onwards, but it represents them as occurring over three years. Richard thought, rightly, that there should be only one child actor and that the audience would not find it credible that he should age seven years.

Concentrating events that spanned seven years in the book into three years in the film generated a serious moral problem. My mother had two children with Mitru: Susan and Barbara. He killed himself while my mother was pregnant with Barbara. Because the film spans only three years, a second pregnancy could be depicted only if Christina were pregnant when she tried to kill herself at Frogmore or if she were pregnant with Susan much earlier in the film. The first option was morally impossible. The other alternative – for her to be pregnant earlier in the film – would have set the film's dramatic structure askew. The exclusion of a second pregnancy was artistically inevitable. For a long time I resisted acknowledging its inevitability, but eventually I had to.

It was very painful for Barbara, who went with Susan to the Castlemaine premiere. One scene particularly so. After Christina has taken the tablets that will kill her, she looks at photos on her dressing table. One of them is of her with Susan and Mitru. Barbara told me that when she saw this she felt 'written out of history'. I replied that the film was not a documentary, that insofar as there is a history it is the book, Romulus, My Father. This did not console her.

The second thing is even more distressing.

From the time of my birth, when she was only seventeen, my mother showed signs of mental illness. The final draft of the screenplay had a scene early in the film, before Susan was born, in which Christina and Rai are alone in Frogmore. Christina hears voices, making it clear to the audience that she suffers even at that stage from a mental illness. Richard convinced Nick to cut the scene. He said that what mattered dramatically was not Christina's madness but the nature of her sorrow. Later, when I asked him why he had cut the scene, he responded that the film would fall into melodrama if there was too much explicit madness. I don't know if he was right, but it was the kind of judgement that he had to make.

When I saw the film for the first time, with that scene cut, I knew immediately that many people would judge her harshly for her neglect of her son, for her uncontrolled spending and for the promiscuity that drove Mitru to despair. The film makes clear that she is in the grip of a deep depression when she cannot look after Susan. But postnatal depression is clearly not the reason why she cannot look after Rai; why she is promiscuous; why she brings Mitru, her lover, to Frogmore.

As a child I was conscious of the disdain many people showed to my mother because of the way she treated my father and Mitru, and because she did not properly care for me or for Susan and Barbara. Now, as an adult, I read the same disdain for her in many reviews of the film, especially ones from America. This pains me deeply. Often the hostility presents as a concern for her victims, me primarily. The concern is sincere, I suppose, but it is pernicious because it suggests that my mother was such a bad mother and wife that she was not deserving of my father's love and kindness or even the love of her son. Such concern is no kindness to a child – it can never be a kindness to a child to undermine their love for their parents by suggesting that their mother or father are not deserving of their love. No one is undeserving of love, not because everyone is really deserving of it but because, unlike admiration or esteem, real love, deeper than both, has nothing to do with merit or desert.

When I predicted to Richard that viewers would judge Christina harshly, he replied that they shouldn't. Nick said the same. Nick especially was mortified when I told him of the reviews. I have not spoken to Richard about it since our original conversation, but I know that hostility to Christina was the last thing he wanted.

The film's attitude to Christina is undoubtedly sympathetic. For some viewers, that is one of its main problems. Why, they ask, does the film show sympathy for a character whose destructive behaviour causes one man to kill himself, another to go mad, and suffering to her son of a kind and degree that prompts almost everyone who sees the film to ask how he survived it?

 

I SOMETIMES WONDER whether I would have refused Richard's request to adapt the book to film, if I had been able to foresee the hostility shown to Christina. I don't know. I do know, however, that I do not –cannot – regret the existence of such a fine film, the inspiring hard work that went into it, the friendships that developed when it was being made and the moving words that Eric spoke when, in his acceptance speech, he dedicated his AFI Award for best actor to my father. And how could I regret the hundreds of emails I have received from people who have been profoundly moved by the film, who have responded with warm-hearted sorrow to Christina in just the way that Nick and Richard hoped they would? Who would be surprised when I say that Franka Potente's Christina is, for me, the most moving character in the film, because in playing Christina she plays my mother?

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