Eugene Weekly : Movies : 8.7.08


Passing Time
Years later, a family scandal surfaces
by Jason Blair

WHEN DID YOU LAST SEE YOUR FATHER?: Directed by Anand Tucker. Written by David Nicholls, based on the book by Blake Morrison. Cinematography, Howard Atherton. Music, Barrington Pheloung. Starring Colin Firth, Jim Broadbent, Juliet Stevenson, Gina McKee. Sony Pictures Classics, 2008. PG-13. 92 minutes.

Blake (Colin Firth) and Kathy (Gina McKee) in When Did You Last See Your Father?

When Did You Last See Your Father? is a movie that simply can’t be ignored, partly because, like a pinched nerve, it won’t allow you to do so. Boasting a cast of British luminaries including Colin Firth and Jim Broadbent as well as a script as elegantly structured as The Dark Knight’s is chaotic, When Did You Last See Your Father? is like a teabag leached too long, its subtle flavors too forward, too bittersweet. The title alone is a guilt-inducing handwringer, like some Hallmark card in the “Guilty Conscience” section, but the greater disservice is the film’s look and feel: When Did You Last See Your Father? is absolutely bathed in grief and alienation, surely an attempt to reinforce the film’s main themes — familial spite and its corrosive effects — which quickly gets out of hand. When the music isn’t busily plucking, plucking your heartstrings, like a bird you wish would find another tree to sing in, the cinematography is cranking down on you with more slow motion than The Natural

And yet, for the chance to watch Firth and Broadbent, I can recommend When Did You Last See Your Father?, which is a little like drinking fine wine from a paper cup. A leaky paper cup, even. But in this case, it’s the wine and not the vessel that matters. 

When Did You Last See Your Father? is about the process by which sensitive Blake (Firth) comes to despise his ebullient but deluded father Arthur (Broadbent), a man of many opinions but very few accomplishments. The father’s pranks, fibs and misadventures gradually ebb Blake’s respect for the old man, leading to feelings of shame and anger — and then, suddenly, outright spite. Cutting back and forth between the past and present, the film reveals a potentially duplicitous side to Arthur, who may not be as daft as he seems. Broadbent, an Oscar winner for Iris, delivers a remarkable performance as Arthur, full of humor and misdirection and vaguely suspicious intentions. Yet the film’s hidden strength is Firth, in particular the way Firth transforms moody Blake into Arthur once Arthur grows ill. The boy becomes father to the man; Blake stands to inherit more than his father’s humor if he isn’t careful about handling his grief. You sense Blake crossing to the dark side, withdrawing to a place even his wife Kathy (Gina McKee) might not reach.

There are a number of inspired moments in When Did You Last See Your Father?: a birds-and-the-bees chat that can only be called haphazard; a beautiful driving lesson delivered on an empty beach. But the film is lumpy and overly sweet. Too often, Father? is overwhelmingly sentimental, gripping us visually like an emotional vice, but like all melodrama it’s discrete when it should be jumbled and untidy. There’s no mess to clean up, which is astonishing, considering that through much of the film, Arthur is battling cancer. It’s as if everything interesting is happening outside the frames, which only works when some of the mess can creep in. Still, to watch Broadbent, who should be remembered at awards season, cross swords with Firth, who’s always steady, is a worthwhile endeavor, even for all the fuss going on around them.

When Did You Last See Your Father? opens Friday, Aug. 8, at the Bijou.