And When Did You Last See Your Father?
Sharp acting and excellent direction make this perceptive little drama much better than it may sound on paper or in synopsis. It is, as advertised, an account of a 40-something married fellow (Colin Firth) coming to terms with his father (Jim Broadbent) in the course of the latter’s terminal illness.
But it is neither soap opera nor maudlin tearjerker. Instead, it emerges onscreen as a film about memory and mortality, a closely observed study in the ambiguity and power of family ties, and of inter-generational influences.
Arthur Morrison is much more demonstrative than his quietly sensitive son Blake (Firth), but the latter is the central consciousness of the story (based on the real-life Blake Morrison’s best-selling memoir). And that’s an element that director Anand Tucker (Shopgirl) parlays into the film’s most powerful virtue—developing all of the characterizations through Blake’s point-of-view, camera-wise and script-wise, with a complex mise en scène mixing past and present, embracing the interplay of memory and emotion amid the intimate dramas of unfolding events.
Eventually Tucker and screenplay-adaptor David Nicholls flirt with emotional and dramatic resolutions of a more conventional sort, especially toward the end. But the film’s greatest appeal and interest comes from its success in implying, through a variety of means, a much more complex and touching emotional reality than the one made obvious by some of the more quotable parts of the script.
Firth’s necessarily taciturn Blake is at times brilliantly and movingly illuminated via camera moves, musical cues, memory inserts and time-shifts, and quiet contrasts of what is said and what is seen—a sort of stream-of-consciousness approach that richly evokes emotional dimensions well beyond what the characters actually say. Broadbent, Firth and Juliet Stevenson (as Blake’s illusionless mother, Kim) all work especially well within this scheme of things.
Not all of this works out in completely satisfactory ways, finally, but there are lots of rewards for the attentive viewer in this one. And for connoisseurs of British acting, there is also a fine and effective supporting cast: Gina McKee as Blake’s wife, Kathy; Sarah Lancashire as the problematical Aunt Beaty; Elaine Cassidy as the spunky servant girl from Blake’s past; Matthew Beard as the teen-aged Blake, and Bradley Johnson as Blake at age 8.