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And When Did You Last See Your Father?

At the beginning of Anand Tucker's rueful comedy, And When Did You Last See Your Father?, Arthur Morrison (Jim Broadbent) runs into a traffic jam at entry to Goodwood Circuit, to which he has brought his family to see the motor race. Not only does he cut ahead, waving his stethoscope as if he were a doctor on call, but he talks his way into a premium parking lot as well. A maestro of bluster, he has no conscience whatsoever about putting himself ahead in the little things in life. His wife, Kim (Juliet Stevenson) may be mortified, but his son, Blake (Bradley Johnson) worships him.

Not surprisingly, the adoration curdles when Blake (now played by Matthew Beard) reaches adolescence. Arthur may make plenty of room in his life for a wide-eyed child, but as that child grows up, Arthur becomes fond of saying that if you lock two men up in a room together, one of them will inevitably kill the other. At the same time, Blake is propelled toward maturity by the far from groundless suspicion that Arthur is having an affair with Aunt Beaty (Sarah Lancashire). Blake is obsessed by the idea that Beaty's daughter, Josie, is actually his half-sister. But what really drives Blake away is Arthur's philistine lack of interest in literature, which becomes Blake's great passion and, ultimately, his career.

In the film's second scene, in fact, the grown Blake (Colin Firth) is dressing for an awards ceremony. His wife, Kathy (Gina McKee) asks him to mention her if he has to make a speech. He does and he does; and the graceless cast of his remarks seems like a legacy from his father, who is present, as well as an indirect attack. Later, Blake complains to Kathy that all he wants from his father is two words, "Well done." Kathy, like all the women in Blake's family, tries to assure him that his father is really very proud of him, and there's no reason to think that Blake doubts this. But he wants something more: he wants recognition as his father's peer, something that Arthur is constitutionally unable to bestow.

The movie's present tense takes place during Arthur's final days, which Blake spends nearby, hoping for the chance to "have a talk about things." Blake wants to be a loving son, but he is too aggrieved by the need to settle scores, and no actor commands the mask of bland decency through which burning resentment may occasionally stare out better than Mr Firth. David Nicholl's adaptation of Blake Morrison's memoir invites you to identify with the successful writer at the start of the film, but it is thanks to Mr Firth's quietly tortured distancing that the emotional balance becomes far more delicate. Arthur is the kind of monster who is more than just a monster. And who better to play that kind of role than Jim Broadbent?

In fact, And When Did You Last See Your Father? is able to depend, massively, on its perfect, beautifully-directed cast. Ms Stevenson is extraordinary to watch, as she ceaselessly registers the boundaries that Kim lays out to protect her less-than-perfect marriage (but whose isn't?) from her son's concern. Ms Lancashire is brilliant as the unhappily-married sensual woman willing to be "consoled" by the generosity that flows from Arthur toward almost any woman, but never, ever, toward a man, be it his own son. And Matthew Beard, as the teenaged Blake, just about walks away with the movie, nailing his performance to the very top of the heap of impersonations of anguished and volatile adolescents desperate, above all things, to appear grown up. He is not just entertaining at this but positively anatomical. His Blake is a tolerably handsome young man with his own knack for the ladies, but we share his conviction that he has not been favored by the gods.

In order not only to stay out of the actors' way but to provide them with the assist of a gentle slope, Mr Tucker and Mr Tucker rely on a handful of expertly-played but very familiar tropes, such as the placement of a camping story toward the beginning of the movie, where the fact that we are still getting to know Arthur and Blake makes the episode funnier to watch than it is in retrospect. Viewers who are not drawn in by the principals' performances are sure to have a very bad time of it, as there is really nothing else about this well-done film that isn't also somewhat well-worn. The machinery of highly-plotted secrets and their revelation is never turned on. A man dies, with just enough of the disagreeable to make us thoughtful (but no more), of colon cancer. His son takes a break from the deathbed to fumble into the arms of the family's housekeeper (Elaine Cassidy), with whom he had a merry time before he went off to university, but he does not fumble for long. That is about all that happens in this film. For me, it was more than enough. (June 2008)

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