And When Did You Last See Your Father? is a classy screen adaptation of Blake Morrison’s bestselling 1993 memoir about his coming to terms with the death of his father. The film weaves together Blake’s memories from his childhood in the 1950s, adolescence in the 1960s and adulthood in the late 1980s.
Jim Broadbent is on good form, clearly relishing his role as Blake’s father, playing him larger-than-life, boorish, overbearing and forever patronising poor Blake, and yet brimful of a breezy charm that makes him the life and soul of the party. The teenage Blake, played impressively by Matthew Beard to show the sensitive soul that will age into an award winning poet, resents his emotional bulldozer of a father. As the film progresses, a darker reason for Blake’s simmering resentment emerges as more is revealed of the suspiciously close relationship his father has with ‘family friend’ Beaty.
Colin Firth as the adult Blake, tight-lipped and brooding, seeks resolution for his feelings as his father’s end draws near. As he becomes ever more consumed with the past he begins to lose sight of the present, rebuffing the support of his wife and wistfully recalling his teenage love, Sandra. Director Anand Tucker frequently films Firth through mirrors perhaps emphasising the extent to which Blake’s bitterness forces him to reflect and feel self-loathing for the sins of his father that he has repeated.
Frustratingly though, the film never really provides resolution. Blake and his father never get to have the final important conversation we hope for, leaving the audience a little cheated. Moreover, it becomes clear that Blake actually did confront his father over Beaty when a teenager thus somewhat undermining the premise of it being a dark secret which has poisoned the father-son relationship.
Among the supporting cast, Juliet Stevenson as Blake’s mother is particularly impressive as a pillar of quiet fortitude. Stevenson captures the sense of weary stoicism necessary to cope with her husband’s many failings, and yet manages to make her love for him palpable, especially as she tends to him near the end.
The film is beautifully shot, with Blake’s memories managing to appear swathed in the rosy glow of nostalgia, even at those times when he recalls the excruciating embarrassment of his father’s behaviour. The translation from book to screen has caused some problems. The power of the memoir came from the unflinching honesty with which Morrison aired his family’s dirty laundry and the level of intimacy that the reader was given. The film has largely lost the authorial voice and so we have to rely on Beard and Firth to provide the intimacy and suggest the way in which Blake observed events.
While Beard gives an impressive attempt, Firth comes across as somewhat self-pitying and wet, and this, along with his cold repression, leaves the audience struggling to make a connection. Where the authorial voice does make an appearance at the end in a voiceover that makes sense of the title, the film packs a more powerful emotional punch. Reflecting on how his father declined and became almost unrecognisable before dying, we are asked when was he last himself? Had this voice been present more often to bring Morrison’s poetic reflection to the surface the film would perhaps have been more powerful.
Despite these reservations it is a moving film without being mawkish and it would take a hard heart not to walk out of the cinema afterwards in a reflective mood. For this it ought to be praised.
Rudolf Eliott Lockhart