James McAvoy took a very unique approach to his performance in My Son.
During filming for director and co-writer Christian Carion’s remake of his own 2017 French film, McAvoy was the only member of the cast to not be given a script. Instead, the Scottish actor was provided with just a brief backstory of his character and then had to improvise his way through the film. McAvoy didn’t even know how the story would end.
In My Son, McAvoy plays Edmond Murray, a Scot with a mysterious job abroad who is forced to return home when he learns his son Ethan, 7, has gone missing from a campsite. Back in the Scottish Highlands, Edmond comes face to face with his ex-wife Joan Richmond, portrayed by Golden Globe winner Claire Foy, as well as her new fiance Frank (Tom Cullen), and helpful Police Inspector Roy (Gary Lewis).
Ravaged by guilt because of his prolonged absence in his son’s life, Edmond takes increasingly drastic action to be reunited with Ethan, all while trying to figure out if there’s an ulterior reason to his mysterious disappearance.
Carion, who shot the original in the same manner with Guillaume Canet, took this approach to My Son because he wanted to inject real tension, suspense and surprise into the thriller genre. Unfortunately, rather than adding anything to My Son, keeping McAvoy in the dark proves to be more of a hindrance.
In fact, while watching the undeniably talented McAvoy flail around during scenes, I couldn’t help but recall Laurence Olivier’s legendary response to Dustin Hoffman’s method acting on the set of 1976’s Marathon Man. After being told that Hoffman had stayed up for three days because his character was supposed to have been awake for that long, Olivier nonchalantly replied, “My dear boy, why don’t you just try acting?”
You can’t help but wish they’d have just tried including McAvoy in the process, rather than using a gimmick that quickly becomes tiresome. Especially since, there’s actually a lot to admire about My Son.
Carion and his cinematographer Eric Dumont film the Scottish Highlands with a majesty and elegance that really allows the natural beauty of the area to shine on screen. At the same time, they also show a skill for creating suspense and atmosphere in simple and sparse settings. Laurent Perez Del Mar’s evocative score adds to the drama, too, giving My Son a rhythm that helps to paper over the cracks of its weak plot and reliance on exposition.
Then there’s the astounding Foy, who is utterly commanding as the despairing mother looking for her son. After immediately getting her character’s struggles and anguish across in a subtle yet still effective manner, Foy then showcases a fierce resolve and inspiring bravery the longer the movie goes on.
Foy is so striking as Joan, that her advantage over McAvoy just feels unfair. Even if he did have a script, it’s unlikely that he’d have been unable to match her portrayal. Instead, McAvoy has just two levels. Either he’s intensely listening and then quietly responding, or he’s exploding in anger and violence.
McAvoy’s innate magnetism saves him. However, all the tools were there for him to create a more fully realised portrayal of a desperate father. One that could have been really resonant and powerful. Instead, his limitations are emblematic of why My Son is ultimately too lightweight and simply-plotted to be anything more than intriguing.
'My Son' will be out in UAE cinemas on January 6