Adapted from a memoir by British writer Blake Morrison and directed by Anand Tucker (Hilary and Jackie), When Did You Last See Your Father? is an unusually effective and tough-minded family drama.
On the surface, this story of a successful writer (Colin Firth, as Blake) returning to his family's country home to bear witness to the death of his father (Jim Broadbent) is the essence of grown-up, middlebrow cinema, the kind of summer counter-programming that tends to find a decent audience of aging moviegoers alienated by the noisy, teen-oriented spectacles littering the multiplexes. But, while When Did You Last See Your Father? is likely to be cinematic codger-bait during its brief Memphis run, it deserves a wider audience than that. It's a film that gives middlebrow a good name.
The film couldn't have been better cast, as Firth and the great Broadbent (Topsy-Turvy, Iris) look like father and son and develop a believably uneasy familiarity that isn't quite a rapport.
The film opens with a flashback to one of Blake's childhood memories, of his father scamming the family into an auto race without proper tickets. "This is the way it was with my father ... minor duplicities ... my childhood a web of little scams and triumphs. He was lost if he couldn't cheat in some way."
This sense of aggrievement at being in the shadow of his father's outsized personality is the chief resentment that drives Blake's discomfort during his dad's final days, as the film lopes back and forth between present scenes and flashbacks to memories from childhood and adolescence.
The teen Blake (expertly played by Matthew Beard) is a jittery, bookish kid who avoids family gatherings to stay in his room pursuing twin obsessions: Dostoevsky and masturbation. The film portrays him as a smart, sensitive, but ultimately arrogant youth who bristles at his father's personality, unintentionally cruel in his lack of discretion. And you see how this dynamic continues into Blake's adulthood, even up until the end — where Arthur's death is physical and felt, an experience at once profound and mundane — which makes the primary mood of the film one of great regret.
When Did You Last See Your Father?
Opening Friday, July 18th