And When Did You Last See Your Father?, 92 mins, rated M, opening in cinemas on 31 July 2008.

[This is my review as published in the July 2008 issue of The NSW Law Society Journal]


This film is an adaptation of the 1993 best-selling and influential memoir by Blake Morrison, a novelist, critic, and past literary editor of British newspaper The Observer. The book is an exploration of memory, reconciliation, and the author’s attempt to come to an understanding of his complex relationship with an exasperating father.

The title comes from a famous British painting by WK Yeames, a Victorian painter of many historical pictures, often dealing with the English Civil War. This particular painting shows an imaginary scene in a Royalist house. Parliamentarian soldiers are questioning a little boy (about 5 years old) about his Royalist father.

The question Yeames poses in his painting is: will the boy tell the truth and thus betray his father? This is quite a conundrum, especially for the Victorians, who believed in children as paragons of honesty and virtue. The painting adds another layer to the memoir and the film: what is the role of honesty and truthfulness in the father/ son relationship?

The Morrison memoir has been sensitively adapted for the screen by David Nicholls. The screenplay takes the point of view of Blake Morrison (Colin Firth), aged about 40. He has returned to the family home to see his father, Arthur, a country doctor who’s dying of cancer. This triggers memories of Blake’s childhood and adolescence. The film cleverly cuts between the present, and two stages of the past: when Blake is a boy of 8 (Bradley Johnson) and when he is an adolescent of 14 (strikingly played by newcomer Matthew Beard).

The director often uses mirrors and glass to show duplicate images, or reflections of people who may or may not be in the frame, to suggest different points of view, and different personas, as well as the idea of reflection itself. The mood is gentle and slow moving, and some filmgoers may feel restless as we cut back and forward in time, returning again and again to the dying Arthur.

But there are several moments of great humour, and a few squirm-worthy scenes where Arthur manages yet again to embarrass Blake. Jim Broadbent plays Arthur, in a towering portrayal of a difficult man. Arthur’s a rogue, not above using his status as a doctor to push ahead in a queue waiting to get in to the car races. This is how the film opens, and we immediately see the fraught relationship Arthur has with his fellow GP wife (the superb Juliet Stephenson), his son Blake, and daughter Gillian (Claire Skinner). They watch in appalled admiration as Arthur triumphantly lies his way into the private members’ carpark and special seats.

Arthur repeats this sort of behaviour throughout his life. And most people seem to love him for it. But he embarrasses Blake, often in front of girls. He refers to Blake as “Fathead,” and he never seems to acknowledge his son’s successes, even when Blake wins an important award for poetry. Worse, Blake suspects Arthur has had an affair with Aunty Beaty.

Arthur never seems to show any emotion with Blake. He’s not the type. Blake, too, is stitched-up and closed-in, having been discouraged and belittled at every turn by his father. So when, towards the end of the film, Blake finds a form of release and begins to cry, it is a genuinely shocking moment. But there is no Hollywood style reconciliation in this film. Colin Firth’s Blake is an internal being, and it is a beautifully restrained performance. Matthew Beard’s portrayal of the teen-aged Blake is intelligent, restrained and quite striking. Juliet Stephenson, as Arthur’s wife, plays way above her age with ease and grace.

Director Anand Tucker’s two previous feature films were Hilary and Jackie (1998) and Shopgirl (2005), both sensitive films. But here he delivers a really beautiful meditation on how we see our parents and what they mean to us. The final scenes of the film ask the question of the title: when did you last see your father? When was he last the way you want to remember him, before he was too ill, before he lost that spark of mischievousness that you loved and hated at the same time? The answer is both unbearably sad and amazingly consoling.