An attempt to salvage a semi-lost feature, Andrew Piddington’s “Sins of a Father” adds footage reuniting some original cast members to the pre-existing “Shuttlecock,” an adaptation of the same-named Graham Swift novel that basically vanished after its San Sebastian Film Festival premiere in 1991. Unfortunately, the new framing device only muddles further what was already a polished but convoluted, emotionally remote misfire. There’s curiosity value in seeing a hitherto inaccessible if minor performance by the late Alan Bates, plus one by Lambert Wilson straddling a nearly quarter-century interval. But this repackaging is unlikely to gain the beleaguered pic much more exposure than it got the first time around.
Swift’s short, cogent book should have made a better film than this one, which was purportedly dogged by production woes even before the cameras started rolling in 1990, then suffered a budget crisis mid-shoot. After the feature unwisely premiered in a less-than-final version at San Sebastian, tepid reviews helped discourage further fest bookings as well as distributor interest, and after one U.K. television showing in 1994, it pretty much disappeared.
The original story was already somewhat diminished in impact by Brit tube veteran Piddington’s histrionic yet remote handling, as well as the presumably funding-necessitated (but otherwise senseless) decision to relocate a fair amount of the action from England to Portugal. The new elements, stretching to three generations a story that already had trouble enough with two, only dilute the material further and feel obviously pasted-on.
Thus we now have middle-aged John Prentis (Wilson) attending his father’s funeral in 1986, then demanding a private audience with the son (a one-dimensionally snippy David Oakes) he alienated years earlier. He seeks to explain the actions that drove them apart, also destroying his marriage to Marian (Jill Meager), by revealing the secret he’d dutifully kept until the death of Maj. James Prentis (Bates). This takes the form of the original pic’s central action in 1962, when John was a young man driven to distraction — expressed in pointless anger toward wife and child — by the mystery of his war-hero father’s mental collapse. The major simply cracked one day, ending up a passive mute in a mental hospital outside Lisbon.
Screwing with the novel’s cleaner plot mechanics in order to deal with this southern European setting, Piddington and Tim Rose Price’s screenplay embroils John in maddening detective work not on home turf (in the book he’s an English government-records clerk) but long-distance, with the Portuguese mental institution painted a place of Kafkaesque menace. Perhaps because this is dramatically awkward, the filmmakers try to ramp up the intensity by having their protagonist driven to near-insanity in his quest to explain dad’s own meltdown. The novel more vividly paints John as a cold, borderline-abusive husband and father whose repressed daddy issues ultimately free him. That emotional payoff is missing here, poorly replaced by a gracelessly contrived reconciliation between next-generation father and son two decades later.
In various pasts and presents, the performance rhythms are stilted, though there’s a handsome surface gloss to the original design contributions that’s competently matched by the new sequences. Bates, one of the most emotionally expressive British actors of his generation, is stuck mostly staring silently into space. The rest of the time, he’s called upon to unconvincingly portray his character years earlier during WWII, in flashbacks-within-flashbacks dramatizing both the major’s allegedly heroic deeds and (finally) the less flattering truth whose threatened exposure causes his breakdown decades later. The usually immaculate Wilson is well served here neither by the hysteria demanded in the “Shuttlecock” footage nor the stolid explication required by the “Sins of a Father” grafted-on framework. Supporting actors are pro, but for the most part their roles lead nowhere.
Those framing sequences, combined with the numerous dialogue-free flashbacks glued together by occasional voiceover narration, give “Sins of a Father” a telltale patchwork feel that does nothing to alleviate problems the film had to begin with. (The original, presumably seen here more or less in its entirety, was 20 minutes shorter than the current version.) Packaging is superficially polished, yet the sum effect is of a well-mounted museum piece one waits in vain to come to life.
Film Review: 'Sins of a Father'
Reviewed online, San Francisco, Jan. 3, 2015. (In Santa Barbara Film Festival.) Running time: 105 MIN.
(U.S.-France-U.K.) A Sea Lion Films production in association with Gigantic Pictures and Minerva Prods. Produced by Graham Leader. Executive producers, Christian Ardan, Jonathan Gray, Brian Devine, Anne O’Shea, Brian Quattrini.
Directed by Andrew Piddington. Screenplay, Tim Rose Price, Piddington, based on the novel “Shuttlecock” by Graham Swift. Camera (color, widescreen), Denis Lenoir, Roger Eaton; editors, Jon Costelloe, Joel Plotch; production designers, Maurice Cain, Jan Walker; costume designers, Anne de Laugardiere, Sharon Long; sound, Nigel Albermaniche; re-recording mixer, Tom Paul; assistant director, Nick Justi, Joao Pedro Ruivo; casting, Gail Stevens.
Alan Bates, Lambert Wilson, David Oakes, Kenneth Haigh, Jill Meager, Arthur Cox, Gregory Chisholm, John Cassady, Beatriz Bucholz, Maud Jurez, Jasmine Hyde, Joao Perry, Fernando Castelo, Luisa Barbosa, Jacqui Sedlar. (English dialogue)