And When Did You
Last See Your Father?, 92 mins, rated M, opening in cinemas on
31 July 2008.
[This is my review as published in the July 2008 issue of The NSW Law Society Journal]
By MICHELE ASPREY, Lawyer
This film is an adaptation of the 1993 best-selling and influential
memoir by Blake Morrison, a novelist, critic, and past literary editor
of British newspaper The Observer.
The book is an exploration of memory, reconciliation, and the author’s
attempt to come to an understanding of his complex relationship with an
The title comes from a famous British painting by WK Yeames, a
Victorian painter of many historical pictures, often dealing with the
English Civil War. This particular painting shows an imaginary scene in
a Royalist house. Parliamentarian soldiers are questioning a little boy
(about 5 years old) about his Royalist father.
The question Yeames poses in his painting is: will the boy tell the
truth and thus betray his father? This is quite a conundrum, especially
for the Victorians, who believed in children as paragons of honesty and
virtue. The painting adds another layer to the memoir and the film:
what is the role of honesty and truthfulness in the father/ son
The Morrison memoir has been sensitively adapted for the screen by
David Nicholls. The screenplay takes the point of view of Blake
Morrison (Colin Firth), aged about 40. He has returned to the family
home to see his father, Arthur, a country doctor who’s dying of cancer.
This triggers memories of Blake’s childhood and adolescence. The film
cleverly cuts between the present, and two stages of the past: when
Blake is a boy of 8 (Bradley Johnson) and when he is an adolescent of
14 (strikingly played by newcomer Matthew Beard).
The director often uses mirrors and glass to show duplicate images, or
reflections of people who may or may not be in the frame, to suggest
different points of view, and different personas, as well as the idea
of reflection itself. The mood is gentle and slow moving, and some
filmgoers may feel restless as we cut back and forward in time,
returning again and again to the dying Arthur.
But there are several moments of great humour, and a few squirm-worthy
scenes where Arthur manages yet again to embarrass Blake. Jim Broadbent
plays Arthur, in a towering portrayal of a difficult man. Arthur’s a
rogue, not above using his status as a doctor to push ahead in a queue
waiting to get in to the car races. This is how the film opens, and we
immediately see the fraught relationship Arthur has with his fellow GP
wife (the superb Juliet Stephenson), his son Blake, and daughter
Gillian (Claire Skinner). They watch in appalled admiration as Arthur
triumphantly lies his way into the private members’ carpark and special
Arthur repeats this sort of behaviour throughout his life. And most
people seem to love him for it. But he embarrasses Blake, often in
front of girls. He refers to Blake as “Fathead,” and he never seems to
acknowledge his son’s successes, even when Blake wins an important
award for poetry. Worse, Blake suspects Arthur has had an affair with
Arthur never seems to show any emotion with Blake. He’s not the type.
Blake, too, is stitched-up and closed-in, having been discouraged and
belittled at every turn by his father. So when, towards the end of the
film, Blake finds a form of release and begins to cry, it is a
genuinely shocking moment. But there is no Hollywood style
reconciliation in this film. Colin Firth’s Blake is an internal being,
and it is a beautifully restrained performance. Matthew Beard’s
portrayal of the teen-aged Blake is intelligent, restrained and quite
striking. Juliet Stephenson, as Arthur’s wife, plays way above her age
with ease and grace.
Director Anand Tucker’s two previous feature films were Hilary and Jackie (1998) and Shopgirl (2005), both sensitive
films. But here he delivers a really beautiful meditation on how we see
our parents and what they mean to us. The final scenes of the film ask
the question of the title: when did you last see your father? When was
he last the way you want to remember him, before he was too ill, before
he lost that spark of mischievousness that you loved and hated at the
same time? The answer is both unbearably sad and amazingly consoling.