Based on the British poet Blake Morrison’s written memoir, the film When Did You Last See Your Father?
is a very particular yet universal story about the eternal knot between fathers and sons. Told from the son’s perspective, Tucker’s film places the focus on the unresolved resentments of the grownup offspring (played as an adult by Firth). The central conflict can be summed up by the following comment by Blake: “You spend your whole life trying to avoid talking to someone, and then it’s too late.” As the film opens, we are introduced to Blake, who has become a successful author, and is married with two children of his own. Yet he still bridles under the feeling that his career choice (or much else about his life) has never met with his father’s approval. Blake’s conflict reaches critical mass once his father, Arthur (Broadbent), is diagnosed with terminal cancer, and Blake returns solo to his childhood home in the British countryside to be at his sickbed. Told through a mixture of present-day passages and childhood flashbacks, the film reveals the background of Blake’s discomfort, though it can’t be said that the author’s issues are ever fully resolved. And maybe that’s the answer: learning to dwell forever amid the conflicting emotions. Broadbent, a great actor but usually cast in supporting roles, has been given a gift with the role of Arthur Morrison, a man who is uncomfortable unless he is the center of attention. A jovial man beloved by all except, perhaps, those who know him best, Morrison Sr. can be callous (or careless) about the feelings of his immediate family. An early scene shows how Arthur was never happy unless he was cheating just a little bit, a quality that renders him omnipotent in the eyes of young Blake (played by Johnson as a child) and an embarrassment in the eyes of the adolescent (played marvelously as a teenager by Beard). There are things about the film that will be familiar to any child of man, but as far as providing insight into the parent-child dilemma, When Did You Last See Your Father?
falls flat. Although the screenplay is by David Nicholls (Starter for 10
), the film bears a formal resemblance to director Tucker’s previous films, Shopgirl
and Hilary and Jackie
. He is a maker of classy soap operas that are as overexaggerated visually as they are undercooked dramatically. The visual formalism of this film is elegant and dominated by an excess of mirrors (as if the story’s theme isn’t already self-evident), and sickroom scenes that have a palpable reality. But the film’s narrative inconclusiveness makes it feel like a journey that returns us in an unbreakable loop to the exact spot at which it began. Plus, the hectoring tone of the film’s title (which varies just slightly from that of the book) provides When Did You Last See Your Father?
with a slightly off-putting introduction. Still, the performances are marvelous, and little moments ring all too true, making Tucker’s film rewarding if not illuminating.