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Binding Ties:
an Experience of Adoption and Reunion in Australia
by Tom Frame
(In Paperback from Amazon)
. "December Boys"

Based on the Michael Noonan novel of the same name, this is probably the most inept adaptation to film that I've seen. Its not-so-subtle promotion of christian religious symbology does no favors to its dramatic sterility and awkward direction. Its only claim to interest is Daniel Radcliffe's first time out in a feature role as someone other than Harry Potter, teenager.

Four orphan boys in a Catholic convent in outback Australia during the 1960s are chosen for a vacation adventure in a small seaside village. As the adult narrator tells us in looking back on his childhood experience, what distinguishes this particular group is their common birth month and the fact that they haven't as yet been adopted, the primary objective of their peers.

The four adventurers are Maps (Radcille), Misty (Lee Cormie), Spark (Christian Byers) and Spit (James Fraser), nicknamed for some experience or characteristic. Though they are mates, they're in constant competition to be seen as the most adoptable, their measure of self-worth. Under the guardianship of Father Scully (Frank Gallacher), they are hosted by the McAnshes, old seasalt Bandy and his missus he calls "Skipper" in deference to who runs the household. They are kindly to the boys and give them great freedom in their home and outside.

Their first morning in the rocky sea cove is one of exhilaration as they run with a freedom they never experienced before, discovering an irascible fisherman, sandstone rocks twisted by vortices of erosion, someone's cave hideout and wind-up record player with the Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Who'll Stop the Rain?" on it. They are, naturally, stunned when they see beautiful semi nude Teresa (Victoria Hill) coming out of the surf and, later, excited to meet her motorcycling husband (Sullivan Stapleton) whom they assume to be the daredevil they saw at a roadside circus. He's known as Fearless.

Maps catches the eye of sexy, blond Lucy (Teresa Palmer) whose secret cave it is and who turns out to be someone he hadn't even started dreaming about yet though she's the ideal of every hormonal adolescent of the male variety.

Inserted into the plotline which stubbornly refuses to build up any dramatic meat to chew on, is the religious symbology that comes off as a filter through whose agenda its all being sifted by writer Marc Rosenberg ("Serpent's Lair," 1995), director Rod Hardy ("Battlestar Galactica," TV) and/or the Christian investors who seem to be controlling from the wings. The image of a fisherman; of a grouper who comes up to his boat to be petted; the disconnected appearance of three convent nuns with a song and cartwheel routine -- all contrived to ensure that we haven't lost the church crowd with the adoption premise.

The capper of it is when Maps tries to rescue one of the other boys from drowning and see the Virgin Mary as a statue appearing from the mysts of the deep and emanating a holy, if entirely unnatural, light. Making the rescue a divine certainty, of course, and a shamelessly amateurish filmmaking contrivance.

Believe it or not, this isn't the worst failing of the movie. With direction and editing that can only be described as awkward and erratic, and a script badly in need of a professional rewrite, the real failure that underlies all else is the absence of a character for whom we, frankly, give a damn.

Though the Harry Potter series continues to thrill and fulfill its millions of followers (this one included) with its concept, production values and brilliant writing), one sad fact is beginning to emerge with the fifth installment in which Harry has emerged from childhood. He's a young man now (at 18) and, despite the storyline promise and his destiny to come up against Lord Valdemort and perhaps vanquish evil, it's beginning to feel like a stretch. The leadership role Ms. Rowling has laid out for him is beginning to require suspension of disbelief as it unrolls on the big screen. And that's because of the gamble you take when casting a child. You can never predict the screen power they'll develop as they grow up... or the lack of it.

To be blunt, there's not much of it showing up on the thin bones and passive personality of Mr. Radcliffe. His reticent style works for the love scene (easily the dramatic high point of the film) as it agrees with Map's obvious inexperience but, in the end, the absence of a seasoned lead figure is a decisive flaw, with the same to be said about the writing. The religious inserts only make it blasphemous to the gods of cinema.

None of the boys, in fact, impress us as anything more than "types" -- cutouts who could be played by any young actor of the right age. About the only screen presence who could make claim to carrying a story with the charismatic magnetism needed here is Stapleton, in the minor roll of the bike rider husband. There's a dimension and energy there that can't be found anywhere else on this calendar.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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Daniel Radcliffe, Teresa Palmer and his December-born mates
In for some gift giving.

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