Matching Jack

The Son Shines Through


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The team behind Matching Jack were determined to tell the story of critically ill boys, writes Craig Mathieson.

Last days ...  Connor (James Nesbitt) and son Finn (Kodi Smit-McPhee).

Tass is nothing if not persistent. The veteran Australian filmmaker, whose CV includes 1986’s Malcolm and 1990’s The Big Steal, spent years trying to sell movie studios, producers and various financiers on a script co-written by her husband, David Parker, about two families whose paths intertwine when their respective young sons are hospitalised with leukaemia.

The response was almost uniformly negative.

“The majority just said, ‘A sick child? A child that dies? We’re not going down that path,’ ” Tass recalls the morning after a sellout screening of that movie, now titled Matching Jack, at the Melbourne International Film Festival.

After years of rejection, Tass and Parker, who, as ever, also served as his wife’s director of photography, are enjoying their vindication.

“I had a man come up to me after a screening recently and tell me that watching the film was the first time he’d ever cried as an adult,” Tass says. “People have very strong and genuine reactions to Matching Jack.”

The story of two innocent boys struggling with a fatal disease is laden with emotion. Even the most workmanlike of filmmakers could twist tears and great sobbing gulps from the scenario. But what makes Matching Jack so solid a work is the narrative’s breadth and the unexpected ends it reaches.

At the start of the film, we meet Marisa (Jacinda Barrett) and David Hagen (Richard Roxburgh), a seemingly successful and happily married Melbourne couple. But when their only son, Jack (Tom Russell), is diagnosed with leukaemia, David’s infidelities are also revealed. Marisa is both repulsed and obsessed, because if David has fathered an illegitimate child, they might have a desperately needed bone marrow donor.

While Marisa is caring for Jack and methodically tracking down her husband’s former flings, she comes under the influence of Connor (James Nesbitt), the widowed Irish father whose sailing adventures with his son, Finn (Kodi Smit-McPhee), summarily ended in Melbourne following the boy’s diagnosis. Connor does everything possible to raise his boy’s spirits, while also preparing him for the possibility that he may not recover.

“I read it and thought it was an opportunity to do something different from a sequence of dark roles and it was something my children could watch,” says Nesbitt, best known for the movie Bloody Sunday and television’s Cold Feet.

“It captured the essence of a relationship between a father and son: the friendship, the love, the respect, all during the most terrible of circumstances. Connor was someone pure and honest and loving, without being ridiculous. It’s rare that a writer captures something so good for a film.”

Northern Ireland-born Nesbitt read a draft of Matching Jack in 2006 and committed to it at the time, without knowing it was years away from production.

Once Tass had been rejected by most mainstream sources, she’d begun chasing private investors. The film almost went into production in 2008 but the global financial crisis hit.

“We lost our main investor during the financial crash and we went back to James and told him that the budget would have to come down and that we weren’t sure if we could afford him,” Tass says. “His reaction was, ‘Of course you can afford me. I’m in. I’m doing this film.’ ”

The story’s slow march to production allowed Tass to further research children’s hospitals and for Parker to fine-tune the screenplay. The revised screenplay kept pulling actors in: Barrett, a former model, had always played variants of “The Girl” in Hollywood films such as Ladder 49 or School for Scoundrels but for Tass she could play a strong mother and a scorned wife. “Jacinda told me, ‘I’m usually reading women who are so simple that I can walk on and do them but with this I have to think and work it out,’ ” Tass says.

The production also had, fresh from playing Viggo Mortensen’s son in drama The Road, Smit-McPhee, the 14-year-old Australian prodigy who Nesbitt, like Mortensen before him, calls a “Brando”.

“He’s frighteningly brilliant,” says Nesbitt, who admits he was emotionally knocked about after their final scenes together. “I didn’t have to try and find the emotional loss and pain of losing Finn, it was so strong from Kodi’s performance.” See the review in Spectrum tomorrow.

– Sydney Morning Herald