When Did You Last See Your Father?

Jim Broadbent takes a dim view of blogs.

Jim Broadbent takes a dim view of blogs.

(Sony Classics) Jim Broadbent, Colin Firth, Juliet Stevenson, Gina McKee, Claire Skinner, Sarah Lancashire, Matthew Beard. Directed by Anand Tucker

The bond between a father and a son can be a complicated thing. Too often sons are burdened throughout their lives by the expectations of their father, particularly when they don’t live up to them – and especially when they don’t want to.

Arthur Morrison (Broadbent) and his wife Kim (Stevenson) are doctors with a general practice in the Yorkshire Dales. They have two children, Gillian (Skinner) and Blake (Firth), from whose perspective the story is told. When Blake is in his 40s, Arthur becomes terminally ill. Blake, who by this time has become an established and acclaimed author, is forced to deal with his somewhat dysfunctional relationship with his father. The story is told in a series of flashbacks to events that capture the dynamics of that relationship, and of the full force of Arthur’s boisterous personality.

Arthur delights in getting something for nothing. He is a bit of a con artist and a bon vivant. He certainly has an eye for the ladies, particularly for family friend Beaty (Lancashire) for whom his flirtations, Blake suspects, have gone much farther than just flirting. For one thing, her daughter Josie (Naomi Allistone) bears a suspiciously strong resemblance to him and his sister.

The introverted Blake is constantly crushed by his father’s need for attention. This need is so pronounced it’s to the point where he habitually diverts the spotlight from his own son. Those moments of torment are interspersed with moments of tenderness and Blake becomes conflicted in his feelings for his father. As an adult, he returns to his father’s side to assist his mother in Arthur’s last days, putting strain on Blake’s marriage to Kathy (McKee). Is there a way for father and son to get past the anger and all the missed opportunities for one last reconciliation?

This is based on Blake Morrison’s memoirs, and that is both the movie’s strength and weakness. The movie spans about 30 years, from the late 50s to the 90s, but we don’t get a sense of how the relationship evolved due to the non-linear nature of the storytelling. There is also a genuineness to the relationship between Arthur and Blake, an authenticity. Like real-life relationships, things aren’t wrapped up neatly the way we would like it to, so we don’t get the catharsis that the story forces us to long for.

Broadbent is at his best here, full of bonhomie and joie de vivre. He is charming and simultaneously cruel. He is everyone’s friend, but he is a nightmare to his son, whom he addresses as “fathead” and interrupts his sexual liaisons while carrying on with his own. He is not an easy man to like, but Broadbent makes him likable. Firth is the perfect foil and there are times where you can’t believe the two aren’t related. Firth carries his recriminations around like a wristwatch, referring to them whenever he feels the need. He obsesses about the relationship between Arthur and Beaty, and when he finally gets the information he wants, you feel curiously unfulfilled, much as Blake must have been.

Stevenson is criminally underrated as an actress; she plays a woman here resigned to the failings of her husband but able to somehow find a way to love him despite those failings. She is overshadowed by his personality and sometimes comes off as being wrapped in a blanket of grief, but she carries herself with a particular dignity that makes her role all the more poignant.

This isn’t an easy movie to love. Basically, all the characters are more or less at war with each other and unable to let go of their disappointments. That imbues the movie with a certain amount of reality that makes it a bit more compelling. I found the relationship between Arthur and Blake to be fascinating; I also found it to be depressing. Sometimes, our human frailties demand that our relationships with loved ones be both.

WHY RENT THIS: Broadbent gives a terrific performance, and Stevenson and Firth are nearly as good. The relationship between Arthur and Blake is genuine and believable.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: There is much emotional turmoil without catharsis; as in real life, the movie doesn’t end necessarily the way we would like it to.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes of sexuality and brief nudity, along with some language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Matthew Beard, who plays Blake as a teenager, wore brown-colored contact lenses in order to more closely resemble Colin Firth.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Private

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