A moving story
And When Did You Last See Your Father? Starring: Colin Firth, Jim Broadbent, Matthew Beard, Juliet Stevenson, Gina McKee, Sarah Lancashire, Elaine Cassidy.
By Andrew Clarke
And When Did You Last See Your Father? Starring: Colin Firth, Jim Broadbent, Matthew Beard, Juliet Stevenson, Gina McKee, Sarah Lancashire, Elaine Cassidy. Dir: Anand Tucker; Cert: 12A; 1hr 32m
It's not what you'd call a feel-good Saturday night movie but it is a startling, emotional film nevertheless and will connect with anyone who has ever lost a father or has felt dominated by one.
Based on a true-memoir by writer Blake Morrison, it tells the story of the author coming to terms with his relationship with his bombastic father as dad lies dying of terminal cancer.
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Told largely in flashback, the film comes across as a moving collage of memories which is very similar in look and style to director Anand Tucker's other great film of death and loss Hilary and Jackie.
And When Did You Last See Your Father? rejoices in a Grade A cast giving first-class performances - even in the supporting roles - although Gina McKee is again wasted as a strong, supportive wife who just hovers around in the background.
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Jim Broadbent steals centre-stage as Arthur Morrison, the loud, larger-than-life Yorkshire GP who brow-beats his family into living the way he wants to. His son, Blake, played in his adult years by Colin Firth and as a gawky, uncertain teenager by Matthew Beard, hates the way the ever-popular dad just has to be the centre of attention and has to organise every aspect of their lives.
There's a seemingly innocuous but important scene which punctuates the film - the first sequences comes in early on, when the adult Blake (Firth) has just moved into a new house and his father immediately takes over the DIY chores - even insisting on hanging a chandelier which Blake wants to store in the attic.
Blake is a grown man, a successful writer, we have just witnessed him winning a major award and yet here he is, seemingly no different from the 15 year old we saw in the previous scene being completely swamped by the sheer force of his father's personality.
The role of women in the film is also interesting. Juliet Stevenson brings great integrity to the role of Blake's mother and it is clear that Blake regards her as a tower of strength - and yet she achieves this by seemingly not doing very much. She sits quietly, smoking, (it is the 1960s after all) turning a blind eye to her husband's little indiscretions and attempts at putting one over on the system.
We learn that she too is a GP and probably it is her who keeps the rural practice going. Blake's sister Gillian really only comes into her own when they are grown up. She is a shadowy figure in Blake's youth but she becomes a more strident voice in later life - someone who rather resents “his lordship's” infrequent visits back home and his fast journeys back to London.
The most interesting woman in the film is Sarah Lancashire's Auntie Beattie who clearly has harboured a long-lasting affection for Blake's father. Arthur's on-going affair with Auntie Beattie is tolerated by mother but Blake harbours a suspicion that Beattie's daughter bears a rather uncanny resemblance to both him and Gillian.
This feeling is reinforced by the memory of a young Blake stumbling across Auntie Beattie and his father in the back of their car while on a picnic.
This is a film which relies on character to work rather than a clear narrative story. It's a film about emotion, about relationships and memories. It's the closest a film has come to an interactive experience because what you see on screen immediately triggers memories from your own life, from your experience, which inform what you are seeing on screen.
The crux of the film lies in the title And When Did You Last See Your Father? It's an issue which is addressed towards the end of the movie and it concerns the personality of the man who is your father.
As Arthur becomes increasingly frail does he cease being the father that Blake remembers? In the touching death-bed scene Firth's Blake is heard to utter: “Please Dad, just stop breathing if you can't come back as you were. Just go.” It's a very affecting moment - particularly as Blake has spent much of the previous 40 years hating his father's dominating nature.
For Jim Broadbent, Arthur Morrison is a gift of a part and he seizes the role with both hands but he cleverly resists the urge to overplay it. His Arthur Morrison remains rooted in reality and comes across as something of a loveable, boisterous eccentric - providing of course that you don't have to live with him.
Colin Firth and Matthew Beard have a harder time of it reacting to Jim Broadbent's dazzling central performance but both are very believable as the repressed son of a domineering patriarch. In many ways it's a thankless role even if you are the narrator - Dad still steals the limelight.
Firth's Blake complains to wife Kathy (Gina McKee) at an awards ceremony early on in the film after his prize-winning literary efforts are largely ignored by his father: “All I want to hear is just two words from him - well and done.” It's a feeling which permeates its way through this very moving film.