In the segment of his work that has made it to these shores, Clive Owen has been mostly a cool character. He’s a lone wolf, working on various sides of the law with a stubbly charm and a get-it-done resolve, even if the thing to get done involves outsmarting a casino (Croupier), spying on a fetching female spy (Duplicity), or saving a bio-doomed world, Mad Max-style (Children of Men). In the case of The Boys Are Back, one of Owens’s finest gigs to date, the ante of emotional connection is upped and the heat and humanity rise up from beneath the gruffly dashing surface.
Here, Owen plays a sportswriter who has to put familial pieces back in place after losing his second wife to cancer. His new assignment, on the personal tip, is to reconnect with two separate “boys”-his young son in Australia and his prep school-aged son from his first marriage, who lives in London. To a fault, he has a rough-and-tumble parenting approach, with the mantra “just say ‘yes’” on the fridge. There is work to be done.
Implicit in this tale of mourning and healing are socially relevant themes of life after broken homes and estrangement from children, but the script alone has a life of its own. Allan Cubitt’s writing, after the Simon Carr novel, craftily plays off of the theme of two locales and cultures, in old and urbanized quarters in London versus the rugged turf of rural Australia, with one boy per environment, drawn magnetically and emotionally toward some middle ground. Owens’s role, as a self-absorbed man suddenly thrust into new levels of responsibility and accountability, gives the actor something to act about-for the first time since his strong showing in Children of Men.
It’s a simple enough narrative equation, with some supernatural fairy dust tossed in (in the form of his late wife’s apparitional visits). Along the way, the story is told with measured cinematic relish and visual vibrancy. The film, in short, works on its own easy-does-it terms, skillfully dancing its way toward a happy ending, which feels well earned.