Daniel in the outback

Radcliffe plays an orphan in 1960s Australia

Posted: September 21, 2007

Daniel Radcliffe works the orphan angle again in the Australian drama "December Boys."

The erstwhile Harry Potter swaps Hogwarts for a less enchanted place - a Catholic boys' orphanage in the Australian outback, sometime in the 1960s.

Recent events have so altered attitudes toward such institutions that we approach this setting with a sense of dread, but "December Boys" has a benign view of the place and a fondness for the priests and nuns who administer it.

It opens with an act of benevolence: Four boys are chosen to spend a summer holiday on a Pacific beach, in the company of a kindly old couple (again, they remain a kindly couple throughout).

The boys are good and close friends, strong together, but are desperate for adoption and parenting.

The plotline has a young, childless couple contemplating adoption, and the four lads vying for their attention.

"December Boys" is genial and often comic, but it's also a movie that's always looking for a unifying tone that it never quite finds.

It also has the feel of a movie, drawn from a novel, that fell in love with the language of the book but could not find a corresponding lyricism for the big screen.

The movie is an uneven blend of melodrama (tragic revelations, secret histories) and fantasy elements that include magical/mythical creatures and religious visions.

These visions tax a young cast of uncertain ability - we know we've seen something beatific when we see the stilted looks of astonishment on the faces of the overmatched teen performers.

Radcliffe, it should be noted, is just part of the ensemble here, though he does get the best of the subplots - a summer rendezvous with a pretty and very accommodating young blonde who is free with cigarettes and other forbidden pleasures.

This spectacularly fortuitous encounter leaves Radcliffe's character feeling unaccountably bad - one of several plotlines that feel insufficiently explained in the jump from page to screen.

Attempts to assemble other disjointed elements for a clean finale do not succeed, and though the movie has a warm heart, it doesn't always have the artistry to match.

Produced by Richard Becker, directed by Rod Hardy, written by Marc Rosenberg, music by Carlo Giacco, distributed by Warner Independent.

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