Dir: Anand Tucker. UK. 2007. 92mins.
Anand Tucker's gentle touch and lush tone proved the perfect fit for the wistful romantic comedy Shopgirl but the same approach tends to dull the pain and deaden the impact of writer Blake Morrison's bestselling memoir And When Did You Last See Your Father'
Morrison's book is painfully honest and whilst the film is sensitively handled and impeccably crafted it is also curiously distant and unmoving. Jim Broadbent's ebullient performance as the overbearing father is the film's star attraction and he may even have a distant shot at some awards attention, especially among BAFTA voters. The popularity of the book and the strength of the cast should give this modest traction as a prestige weepie among older, upscale audiences but prospects beyond that are limited.
A successful author and poet, Blake (Firth) endures a love/hate relationship with his father Arthur (Broadbent). It is only when the elderly Arthur is diagnosed with terminal cancer that the diffident Blake is forced to seek some sense of truth and reconciliation.
Reflections on defining moments from his childhood and adolescence allow Blake to revisit the past and try to judge whether his father was incorrigible or insufferable, a family man who enjoyed a harmless flirtation or a philanderer who betrayed his mother Kim (Stevenson) with his fondness for her sister Beaty (Lancashire).
Beautifully shot by Howard Atherton, And When Did You Last See Your Father' is simply too tasteful for its own good. Moving between 1989 and flashbacks to events of the late 1950s and during the Cuban Missile Crisis, it paints the past in the rosy glow of nostalgia.
Summer days are radiant with sunshine, picnic lawns are a lavish green and key discoveries are rendered in dreamy slow motion. Gliding effortlessly between past and present, the film does benefit enormously from the presence of Matthew Beard as the adolescent Blake. An outsider, observing the world with a writer's detachment, he captures all the exasperation and admiration of a youngster who wants to give his father the benefit of the doubt but smarts from the niggling resentments and constant humiliations that come to define their relationship.
Broadbent is entirely convincing as Arthur, a blithe charmer who likes to consider himself the life and soul of any gathering. He may just be oblivious to the damage he causes as he tramples over the feelings of the more sensitive souls around him. The problem in terms of creating the dramatic intensity of a film like This Boy's Life is that Arthur never seems that much of a monster and Broadbent makes him very sympathetic.
The film's weak link is Firth. Firth is a past master at depicting the clenched-jawed emotional repression of the English middle-classes and effectively conveys the anger that Blake has nurtured for years. When the character finally cracks and the emotion pores out Firth's grimacing contortions fail to meet that challenge.
And When Did You Last See Your Father' may well have an appeal to the Iris audience but you are felt wondering what a director like Terence Davies might have made of the material.
Number 9 Films (UK)
Irish Film Board (Ir)
EM Media (UK)
Intandem Films (UK)
UK Film Council (UK)
(44) 20 7851 3800
David Nicholls based on the memoir by Blake Morrison