When Did You Last See Your Father

Reviewed by Tim Grierson

Examining the complex, difficult bonds between fathers and sons, When Did You Last See Your Father is a respectable male tearjerker that culls familiar emotional terrain with intelligence and strong performances. The main attraction of this overly restrained dramatic offering from Brit Anand Tucker (Hilary and Jackie, Shopgirl) is Jim Broadbent' superb turn as the troubled patriarch.

Based on the memoir of poet Blake Morrison, When Did You Last See Your Father is told from the perspective of the adult Blake (Colin Firth), as he returns to his English parents home to tend to his dying father Arthur (Jim Broadbent). Helping get his fathers affairs in order, Blake is beset with childhood memories, which the audience sees in flashbacks: Matthew Beard plays the 14-year-old Blake, while Bradley Johnson plays the poet at age 8.

As the flashbacks intermingle with the present-day sadness, Blake begins to come to terms with conflicted emotions hes felt for his father since he was a boy. Arthur and his wife Kim (Juliet Stevenson) were both doctors, and he had hopes that his son would join the profession as well. But Blakes interest in literature proves to be a thorn in Arthurs side, provoking the man to tease his son relentlessly about the “illegitimacy” of life as a writer.

The flashbacks reveal that Arthur could be a vivacious, genial man, but that his disappointment in Blakes career path created a permanent wedge between them. But as Arthur slowly dies, Blake must decide how he wants to remember his father–and also how to handle Arthurs long-buried family secret.

Despite its delicate direction and strong performances, When Did You Last See Your Father is a rather obvious tale of strained familial bonds and the agony of dying. Drector Anand Tuckers film is based on a true story adapted by screenwriter David Nichols, which lends emotional resonance to some of the plots generic emotional beats, but it cant fully hide the minimalism of the storys insights.

Even so, Tuckers detached treatment of the material is a wise creative choice, underplaying the films melodramatic elements so that the story comes at us instead from an intellectual perspective. The use of myriad flashbacks to forward the narrative is an overused technique, but at least Tucker uses them to offer snapshots into a father-son relationship as opposed to loading them down with clues for some big mystery the film will later solve. Even though When Did You Last See Your Father revolves around the question of whether Arthur had an affair with Blakes Aunt Beaty (played by Sarah Lancashire) and had a child with her, that concern is secondary to the deeper father issues at play in the film.

As the films central character, Jim Broadbent gives not just a sharp performance but a tricky one as well. To anyone other than Blake, Arthur is a gregarious delight, an incorrigible flirt, and a big man with a hearty vitality and an irreverent sense of humor. But Blake sees the other side of that coin: His father seems too friendly with Beaty, which angers Kim, and he also enjoys humiliating his son in public as a passive-aggressive way of dealing with their different temperaments.

Without overstating the case, When Did You Last See Your Father argues that Blakes escape into books was partially inspired by his fathers subtle browbeating in some ways, Arthur was a worse bully than anyone the young boy would face in the schoolyard. But Broadbent wont simplify Arthur into some horrible family monster. We can see how his barbs are seemingly harmless, always done in jest, and that he does indeed love his son, even if his ways of expressing that affection come across in odd ways. Arthur is a complicated creature a man who deeply hurt his son but never seemed to fully grasp that he was doing it at the time.

Because Arthur takes up so much screen time, none of the other performances stand out as strongly. Colin Firth projects the necessary intelligence and sensitivity to play the thoughtful writer, but the adult Blake mostly reacts to the childhood flashbacks, limiting the characters resonance. That said, he does have some fine moments near the end when Blake finally decides how to move forward after his fathers death.

Of the two younger Blakes, the stronger is Matthew Beard as the 14-year-old incarnation. Experiencing love and lust, finally squaring off with his father, Beards Blake is an awkward, passionate young man, and the teen actor does honorable work in a role that sometimes veers into dull coming-of-age territory.

Tuckers restrained style occasionally leaves the film feeling emotionally chilly, an intellectual exercise more than a visceral experience, but that self-control is necessary for a surprisingly moving finale. There are no grand revelations or huge plot twists as When Did You Last See Your Father comes to a close, but its ending is enormously effective because it reaches its conclusion organically and honestly. It may take a while to get there, but the film eventually earns its audiences tears.

Cas

Colin Firth (Blake Morrison)
Jim Broadbent (Arthur Morrison)
Juliet Stevenson (Kim Morrison)
Gina McKee (Kathy Morrison)
Elaine Cassidy (Sandra)
Claire Skinner (Gillian)
Matthew Beard (Young Blake, age 14)
Bradley Johnson (Young Blake, age 8)
Sarah Lancashire (Beaty)

Credits

Director: Anand Tucker
Production company: Number 9 Films, Irish Film Board, EM Media, Film4, Intandem Films, UK Film Council
US distribution: Sony Pictures Classics
Producers: Elizabeth Karlsen, Stephen Woolley
Executive producers: Lizzie Francke, Tessa Ross, Gary Smith, Paul White
Co-producer: Laurie Borg
Screenplay: David Nichols (based on the novel by Blake Morrison)
Cinematography: Howard Atherton
Editor: Trevor Waite
Production design: Alice Normington
Music: Barrington Blundell

Running time: 92 minutes