AND WHEN DID YOU LAST SEE YOUR FATHER
UK, 2007, 92 minutes, Colour.
Jim Broadbent, Colin Firth, Juliet Stevenson, Gina Mc Kee, Sarah Lancashire, Matthew Beard, Elaine Cassidy, Claire Skinner.
Directed by Anand Tucker.
Book-loving readers of The Universe may remember this memoir of poet, novelist, literary editor, Blake Morrison when it was first published in 1993. It has taken a long time to reach the screen, not an easy task to adapt a family memoir, but it has been worth the wait.
If audience experience is anything like this reviewer’s, then they will be identifying with characters very strongly, identifying with the situations and making comparisons if they have been through similar experiences, especially of terminal illness and death.
The quotation of the title comes late in the film. It is a reference to Blake Morrison’s grandfather who was asked at the time of his father’s death, ‘And when did you last see your father?’. The question has many meanings, not just seeing one’s father at the time of death or in final illness. Rather, it asks the question, when did you last see your father as he really was, fully alive as himself.
Morrison asks the question because he had many difficulties with his father. Arthur Morrison was an extroverted, jocose, even rambunctious man, a doctor, married to a doctor, who hoped that his son would follow in his footsteps. In many ways, his son was a disappointment, a quiet and introverted boy who grew up to be a writer, even a prizewinning writer who was never praised verbally by his father.
Not that Arthur Morrison was not proud of his son and loved him. He didn’t say it and Blake needed the words. As he recollects his father in this memoir, he begins to realise all that his father did for him and to let go of the anger, even fury, that he felt for his father.
The film is a memoir composed of jigsaw pieces of life. As they intersect on screen, we see the little boy realising his father’s infidelity. We see the quiet teenager who becomes the butt of his father’s stories and jokes. We see the adult Blake who has come to be with his father and mother in his father’s final illness, hoping for some talk, some reconciliation, a man who needs to put the pieces together and appreciate his father, faults and failings as well as generosity and love.
The film is beautifully presented, home and travels in traditional English countryside and a musical score that starts light but becomes more sombre as the narrative progresses. Many audiences will feel at home in the film.
But, it is the acting which is the film’s great achievement in communicating the characters, the story, the crises and the emotion.
Jim Broadbent is one of Britain’s great character actors. He won an Oscar for caring for his wife in Iris. Here, he is the dying father – most convincing and moving in this part of the film. But, in the flashbacks, he comes fully alive and creates a vivid Arthur Morrison.
Colin Firth can often be silent and withdrawn in his films. This suits perfectly as the adult Blake, remembering, tending his father, supporting his mother and trying to deal with his emotional needs and his relationship with his father. Matthew Beard is also strong as the adolescent Blake. Juliet Stevenson is unobtrusively moving as the long suffering but devoted wife and mother.
This is life, acknowledging the hurts and the sins, but seeing the hope in a redemptive love.
1.The impact of the film: family, relationships, tensions, family talk, reconciliation?
2.Impact: death, dying? Illness, the effect on each of the characters? The progress of the illness? The experience of dying? The aftermath, the funeral?
3.The setting in the 1950s, 60s, 80s and 90s? The Yorkshire countryside? The village? Homes? The musical score?
4.The tone: beginning softly, becoming darker, surfacing anger, fury, needs? The musical score corresponding to this?
5.The structure of the film: a memoir, glimpses of the past, inserting memories, a jigsaw? The jigsaw of personal growth, change and relationships, failures? Each part partial? The universe and the comments at the beginning, at the end?
6.The effect of a father on a son? Of an extrovert on an introvert? Love in action rather than word? Intimidation, the son not understanding, anger under the surface? Blake Morrison’s memories? Blake in himself, his tense relationship with his sister, his love for his mother, constantly defending her? His attitude towards his father, discovery of betrayal at a young age, secrets? His father’s attitude towards his achievement and lack of achievement? The butt of his father’s jokes? Need for his father’s admiration? His imitating his father in his relationship with his wife? The talk, the tending of his father in his dying, the after-effect? His final embrace of his father – in his imagination? His weeping?
7.The portrait of Arthur: a man of his era, jovial and extroverted, his role as a doctor, the introduction to the family, the traffic jam, his impatience, going past the police, claiming that he was a doctor, entering in the wrong entrance, getting the more expensive tickets more cheaply? Blake’s perceptions of his father, his comments on his scams, lies, being careful of money, his satisfaction at winning? Arthur’s love for his wife, yet the betrayal, with Beaty? Blake’s interpretation of their relationship? His reaction to Blake falling from the tree as a boy, putting on the iodine, Blake as a teenager, teaching him to drive on the beach, daring, speed? Taking him camping, the waterproof sleeping bags, the lack of tent poles, the branches, waking in the water? His telling the jokes at the hotel, giving his son alcohol? Christmas visitors, wanting his son to come down, his never reading a book? Practical work? The later moving of the house, his being at the back of the room when his son won the prize, his comment? His illness, in the hospital, direct with the doctor, at home, his wife looking after him, Blake and Jillian coming? His wife lying next to him, her devotion? The process of the dying, the washing, talk, his death? Seen in retrospect? The final embrace? Beaty’s explanations to Blake? His mother’s words – and the final flashback to putting up the chandelier: “What next?”
8.The portrait of Blake, as a little boy, quiet, going up the tree, falling? Brave with the iodine? The teenage Blake, always reading, Dostoyevsky, learning to drive, his exasperation at the camp, in the water, the drink, his father’s jokes? The betrayal – and seeing him bring Beaty? Sandra’s coming into the house, the sexual relationship? His continual concern about his mother, the Christmas parties? The growing anger? Blake at forty, his wife and children, love for his wife, tension? His being urged to hurry for the award, the comment on the sex police? Packing and moving, the chandelier? His response to his father’s illness, his need to talk with his father, going through the papers, going into the workshop? Being with his father when he died? His response to his mother’s grief? The funeral? The talk afterwards, especially with Beaty? The experience of his father’s love?
9.His mother, silent, the doctor, devoted, love for her children, her upset with Beaty, the migraines, devoted to her husband, washing him, the death? The wake, the kiss?
10.Sandra, pert, Scottish, the sexual relationship, her admiration for Arthur, Arthur giving her the money for the house, marriage, divorce, Blake’s visit and their discussing the past?
11.Beaty and her daughter, the relationship with Arthur, the outings, Christmas celebrations? The mother greeting her at the wake? Blake and his wanting to talk with her, her wanting something for herself – and her final words to Blake?
12.Jillian, as a young girl, relationship with Blake, with her father, the illness, the funeral? The tensions with Blake?
13.Kathy, her love for her husband, the children, the phone calls, feeling that Blake was distant?
14.A film of feeling, audiences identifying with the characters, their experiences, illness and death, comparisons with their own experiences, a film of insight? Of human fallibility and needs? Of human love?