When Did You Last See Your Father?

Giles Keyte/Sony Pictures Classics
Anand Tucker/United Kingdom-Ireland 2007

The challenge of translating interiority to the exterior world, of transferring the sort of deeply felt emotions and ideas so easily expressed on the page into the visual medium of cinema, has traditionally been the biggest hurdle facing filmmakers of literary adaptations. Still, director Anand Tucker and screenwriter David Nichols had their work cut out for them in creating the cinematic version of Blake Morrison’s And When Did You Last See Your Father?, an autobiographic memoir said to be completely steeped in the main character’s painful memories and buried emotions. Fortunately, thanks to Tucker’s confident visual style, Nichols’s seamless transitioning between past and present and an Academy Award-worthy performance by Jim Broadbent, this plotless motion picture with only the vaguest of a narrative arc proves a powerful experience.

The material weaves together some 30 years in the history of the Morrison family from the early 1960s through the late 1980s, and centers on the complex relationship between son Blake and patriarch Arthur (Broadbent). Within that time frame emerge three specific dynamics. The screenplay reveals the dual admiration and fear felt by eight-year-old Blake (Bradley Johnson) towards his dad, the disgust with which 14-year-old Blake (Matthew Beard) regards him and the turmoil experienced by the adult Blake (Colin Firth) at the end of his father’s life, as he comes to terms with the ramifications of those different periods.

To succeed the picture requires that Arthur Morrison come across as a gregarious, larger-than-life figure, and that his every action and every flaw seem to loom large over the individuals surrounding him. Broadbent brings the role the impassioned energy and overpowering charisma it demands. In operating across a varied emotional register, confidently asserting his way and unabashedly needling every incarnation of his son he makes Arthur the sort of person who could have nothing short of an immense effect on all those swept up in his path. Firth plays off him well, playing a darker shade of the sort of tightly wound, stiff-upper-lipped character that is his specialty, but newcomer Beard most eloquently conveys the strong emotional weight percolating between father and son.

Tucker lays out an intelligent visual scheme to support his actors’ strong work. Filled with mirrors, reflected silvers of light and slow operatic pans through time, it viscerally evokes the swirling tides of memories and feelings that stalk the adult Blake. The director draws out the beauty latent in a simple gesture, a slow breeze, the way a ray of sunlight illuminates a face, and he adds considerable potency to it by linking so much of his imagery to the lasting imprint it leaves on the main character’s conscience. In that way, the film feels like it unfolds through a series of constantly sliding doors, traveling through time and space, colored by the experiences that have made Blake the man he is and his relationship with his father the challenging and multilayered one it is. As molded by Tucker and Nichols, When Did You Last See Your Father? represents one of those rare instances of cinematic happenstance in which the right people have taken on the right material and put forth a movie of thematic weight and visual wonder.

© 2008 Robert Levin. All rights reserved.

Tagged as: , , , , , , ,

Leave a Response

You must be logged in to post a comment.